“I think a team with 11 Azpilicueta’s probably could win [the Champions League]” says Jose Mourinho.
For any other manager this an outlandish comment, one that raises serious questions. Azpilicueta, albeit a master of his art in 2014, doesn’t score enough goals to win football matches. When it’s Mourinho, it doesn’t make his top 50 most memorable quotes.
He does have a point, to an extent though, and it’s a lesson that Chelsea are currently learning. Mourinho’s point, as much as praising the defender, was that football is about more than ability. Eight years on from that and Azpilicueta had lifted the Champions League, Mourinho is yet to do it again since 2010.
This isn’t really about Azpilicueta though, he adds an important aspect to Graham Potter’s current Chelsea squad, even if he wasn’t favoured over Trevoh Chalobah off the bench against AC Milan. The 33-year-old is more than just the one-on-one defending or looped cross from central positions. He’s more than a tucked in shirt.
What has become apparent though, is just how good some of those around him are. Despite being four years older than Azpilicueta, Thiago Silva is playing at a higher, more consistent level at Stamford Bridge, and has been since he joined in 2020. Wesley Fofana’s speed and Chalobah’s own underrated ability are all evident when Azpilicueta plays, it’s sad to see someone of such stature struggle.
It doesn’t take away from his achievements at the club, which are comparable to any player to wear blue in the past decade, and longer, but 11 Azpilicueta’s might not get you very far anymore. The biggest gap in quality maybe shows why the Spanish defender hasn’t been able to maintain his levels.
When playing next to or instead of Reece James, what Chelsea miss is too evident. The 22- year-old is playing his best football to date right now, coming off the back of a goal and an assist against Milan, but he has been competing with his captain for a spot since 2019.
James’ first season at Chelsea, in a back four, showed that he had the quality and potential to do what he is doing now. If you can win the Champions League with XI Azpilicueta’s in 2014 then on current form you may only need seven of James.
It’s not about a comparison of abilities, of about what one can do and another can’t, the role of a fullback has massively changed. Azpilicueta’s expertise is no longer a requirement, though James is rarely beaten in many duels and was told:
“this guy is actually the toughest I have faced, I think,” by Raphael Leao.
That came just days after shutting out Wilfried Zaha. The defender has natural ability, strength, technique, timing and a sense of the occasion. He has rightly been lauded for his recent performances, which have really stretched across most of 2022 when he’s been fit, and even the iconic Silva said:
“if he keeps this winning mentality, he has everything to be the best in history.”
High praise from a 38-year-old widely regarded as one of the best defenders of his generation. At 22, James is hitting levels that Chelsea players haven’t done so since 2017. They’ve had Eden Hazard at 28 reach peak performance, they’ve seen glimpses of N’Golo Kante magic in big games, Silva himself has been nothing short of sensational.
James is getting close to those levels across a period of time as well. Arguably the best right-back in the world, probably the best on current form, and it’s hard not to say he’s one of the most balanced players on the planet. Thomas Tuchel took his game from promising to superstar, and he cottoned onto Mourinho’s line of thinking, saying:
“I would love to have two of Reece James, that would solve the problem, it’s like 50% towards wing-back and 45% towards the back three.”
If Graham Potter could do that he might ask for another few clones. One for fullback, one for wingback, one for centre-back, one for midfield, and why not chuck one up front as well, he can’t do badly, have you ever played in goal, Reece?
For now, Potter has one James, and that’s been enough so far. His task is to help the Englishman to maintain his current standards and raise them. That’s what Potter has been known for in his coaching career, player development, but he hasn’t managed someone of this ability before. It’s a challenge, but a nice one.
James is already a Champions League winner, Tuchel did it with just one of him, he needed an Azpilicueta too, that proved Mourinho right, and now Potter will need to base his Chelsea success around how much superhuman ability he can squeeze from one Reece James. Save some for the rest of us.