Chelsea have completed a torrid few days for Liverpool as goals from Willian and Ross Barkley sealed a 2-0 victory to send them through to the FA Cup quarter-finals.
Among the abundance of Chelsea and premier league records held by Frank Lampard, one of the more exceptional ones is the 164 consecutive Premier League appearances made between 2001-2005.
It owes much to Lampard’s enduring professionalism and meticulous preparation to maintain such durability and longevity, especially as a midfielder in an era, where by modern standards had unrivalled physicality and brutality headlined by the likes of Roy Keane and Patrick Vieira.
The nearest anyone has got to that record in recent years is Lampard’s skipper at Chelsea in Cesar Azpilicueta, who has remarkably only missed two league matches out of the last 156 stretching back to the start of the 2015-16 season.
It is a statistic that is hardly surprising given the Spaniard’s sustained consistency and durability as a player. He has shown exceptional versatility as a title winner as both a fullback on either flank and a centre back under Jose Mourinho and Antonio Conte respectively.
However, after four games into the new campaign, Azpilicueta’s poor performances have come into sharp focus as the beginning of the Frank Lampard era has been punctuated by a defensive brittleness and instability that has been largely down to the Spanish international’s individual mistakes.
It is not an overstatement to say that Azpilicueta has been directly responsible for or involved in up to seven of the nine goals conceded by Chelsea so far.
It is an alarming statistic that owes much to not only the seemingly declining forces of a once world-class player, but the apparent targeting of Azpilicueta on the right hand side as it becomes more evident that he is becoming a weak link in the back four.
If we cast our minds back to the opening day demolition at Old Trafford, it was Azpilicueta who somehow allowed Anthony Martial to get in front of him in the six yard box in the blink of an eye to convert a low cross when he was in front of him only moments earlier.
He was also caught way to square when Paul Pogba pinged an excellent through ball over Azpilicueta for Marcus Rashford to convert as United capitalised on the Spaniard’s lack of pace.
This was something that was exploited once more by Paul Pogba for United’s fourth goal when the Frenchman’s barnstorming run set up Daniel James on the counter despite the despairing efforts of the Chelsea man.
Against Leicester, Wilfrid Ndidi made amends for coughing the ball up for Mason Mount’s opener with an equaliser from a corner, and once more it was Azpilicueta that was marking the Nigerian and culpable for a set piece that should have been defended much better for someone who has played as a centre half.
At Carrow road, Todd Cantwell’s equaliser should never have happened, as Azpilicueta again got sucked into the ball carrier and got too square and didn’t even put in an attempt to cut off Teemu Pukki’s pullback- a ball that in all probably could have been defended against with a sliding block.
Most alarmingly of all at Stamford Bridge, both of Sheffield United’s goals came from Azpilicueta’s flank in what seemed a pre-determined tactic.
Enda Stevens was made to look like Marcelo as he waltzed past the Spaniard effortlessly to tee up Callum Robinson, who in turn was allowed too much space to fizz in a sumptuous ball into the Chelsea box to cause Kurt Zouma to score the own goal that clinched the Blades’ well deserved equaliser.
Whether it be lapses in concentration, poor positioning or the forces of time, attrition and declining physical attributes, a frankly disastrous showing over the opening four league fixtures has opened the path for academy starlet Reece James to stake his claim for the starting right back position when the Englishman is back to full fitness.
The 19-year-old was an absolute revelation at Wigan in the championship last season, winning the Wigan player of year and goal of the year gongs and being named in the championship team of the season.
He was ever present throughout the season racking up 46 appearances and demonstrated his impressive technical prowess as the Latic’s set piece specialist who was able to convert from the spot and from a free kick.
James’s quality on the ball whether crossing from deep positions or on the overlap is impressive with a real talent for getting whip and pace on his deliveries to be a serial threat in possession.
His comfort on the ball allows him to step into midfield and change the direction and tempo of passing moves, which shows a real intelligence and composure to his football as well as an exceptional versatility that makes him an option in midfield and centre back.
His powerful, direct and robust thrusts in possession illustrate a physically imposing and strong player who is deceptively quick in defensive recovery when making last-ditch challenges – something that is sorely needed in the Chelsea defence at present.
Chelsea have potentially a gem of a player here who just needs to show the ability to elevate his game to the demands of the premier league, and once that is shown, it will be hard to see the Chelsea captain regain his spot as an automatic starter at right back.
The days of the workmanlike and battling fullback are gone – the modern fullback is primarily judged more on what he can do in possession and how much he can supplement the attack than how defensively sound they are.
Looking at the top teams, it is no surprise that the likes of Trent Alexander Arnold and Andy Robertson at Liverpool and Kyle Walker and Benjamin Mendy at Manchester City are quick, energetic and excellent crossers who are a constant threat to the opposition on the ball.
It’s not to say these players can’t defend, they are all decent enough defenders who are aided by their recovery pace, but against compact defensive shapes and low blocks, full backs are normally afforded the most time and space to operate in possession and therefore, it is crucial that they possess the requisite attacking qualities to contribute on the ball.
Pep Guardiola’s use of inverted fullbacks further heightened the sense of how crucial fullbacks are tactically and how there is still a sense of untapped potential and underutilisation of them considering how much time they often find themselves in possession during a game.
Cesar Azpilicueta has had a fantastic Chelsea career: two league titles, two Europa league titles, one FA Cup and one League Cup is an impressive trophy haul in a more complicated latter half of Roman Abramovich’s tenure that has been characterised by greater austerity and youth integration.
However, at 30 years of age and having played the most minutes of any outfield player in the league since his arrival in 2012, it all appears to be catching up to the Spaniard.
Once so formidable and arguably world-class especially as a one versus one defender, it seems the gold standard that is the technically gifted and jet heeled modern fullback as well as the exuberance of youth may finally have brought upon the demise of a dying breed of shirt tucking, nullifying, defensive stoppers.