Azpilicueta is enjoying life under a demanding new boss in Tuchel
When Thomas Tuchel had his first meeting with Cesar Azpilicueta back in January, the German made it very clear what he expected of a club captain, but there is still a question from that. Does their relationship involve hugging, given the Chelsea manager’s propensity for embracing his players?
“Yes,” Azpilicueta laughs. “And shouts as well!”
Tuchel can so quickly go from the encouraging to the exacting, particularly when a player momentarily slips out of position.
“His focus is on every action,” the 31-year-old explains. “When a player is out of position, he is very demanding in this case. You need everybody in the right spot every time. When you are at the highest level, every single metre can make a difference.”
The effect of all that hasn’t so much seen Chelsea change position in the league but enjoy a huge leap, to the point they can win two trophies and become European champions in a climactic end of the season. Azpilicueta is speaking for an interview ahead of the first of those finals, the FA Cup final against Leicester City, the morning after the 1-0 defeat to Arsenal.
It is a reflection of how far they’ve come that such losses are now so rare, and why it’s left such a feeling of aggravation about it in the dressing room. It is certainly a far cry from the time of their last meeting with Leicester, a 2-0 defeat in January. That was the team’s fifth defeat in eight league games, and proved Frank Lampard’s last in the competition before his sacking. Azpilicueta admits the players could not have imagined a turnaround like this at that time.
“That was a difficult night,” he says. “The result was bad, but I think the feeling we all had was maybe worse with the way we performed. Obviously when you are at the stage where we were going downwards in the previous two months, that game was bad. We could feel that we were not playing at our level.
“But the reaction from the team at that point was a big one. I think we are now in the position that we wouldn’t have believed possible that day.”
Azpilicueta puts it down to the forward-thinking approach of the manager, but also the response of the players.
“The reaction from the team at that point was a big one,” the Spanish international says. “He made it very clear what he wanted from the team. We always had very honest conversations about what was better for the team, in terms of how we were doing things. Not footballistically, but in terms of trips or the time of training.
“It’s true he is very specific. He goes into detail, he’s very active.
“In every training and every meeting the way he wanted us to play is very important because you don’t have a lot of time and you have to go straight where you need to.”
The speed of Tuchel’s effect is all the more impressive given the speed with which Chelsea can switch positions. There has even been a transformation in Azpilicueta, as a player usually most admired for his solidity can be seen suddenly careering up the wing. It was one of the most striking features of Tuchel’s first few games.
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“I have my own way of playing but I always had this mentality of being open to new ideas,” Azplicueta says. “I never felt that I was fully complete because in my career I played different positions and I always tried to get the most out of them and learn from every position. That allowed me to look into players from different parts of the pitch and create different relationships in the team because when you play in the same position and you always have on your side the same kind of players, then it’s more straightforward.
“With different managers, I’ve always been flexible and I always adapt.”
He was also primed for some of this by one of Tuchel’s predecessors – Antonio Conte. That was the defender’s first introduction to a manager so intensive on every metre of position, and also a more central role.
“Maybe the biggest change I’ve had was to play in a back three the first year with Conte because at that time I only played in a back four on the right or the left, but I never played as a centre-back. So that was maybe the most challenging time, to a new position, centre-back. In England, we know the history of centre-backs. Normally, big, strong, different kind of football. Of course it was a challenge for me and I tried to, I spent lots of time on videos and improving because I knew I had to be ready for it.”
Mention of Conte, and so many different roles, only reminds that Azpilicueta has been at Chelsea so long. He has been a constant source of consistency through so much change. That is illustrated by the fact this is his fourth FA Cup final. He might feel he is due a victory given he won in 2018 but lost in 2017 and 2020, with last year a particularly bad experience. Azpilicueta had to go off injured in that 2-1 defeat to Arsenal, having also given away a penalty.
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“We were 1-0 up and we had the game in our hands and we let it go,” he says. “That was bad emotions. I don’t have a good memory of that. You don’t need extra motivation in the FA Cup final when you know how special it is for the country and for my club. But when you have a bad feeling from last season you want to come back. It was the same when we lost the final in 2017 and we came back the following year and we won the Cup. I hope this year we can replicate that. It’s a bad feeling when you arrive in the final and don’t win, and we want to be successful this season.
“All the guys who were here last season want to change that result. Hopefully we can take that in a positive way to be more motivated even if you don’t need more motivation in these kinds of games.”
The truth is that all of Chelsea’s remaining games this season are “these kinds of games”. Saturday’s FA Cup final is immediately followed by a league match at home to Leicester on Tuesday, which is almost a play-off for the Champions League places – just a week and a half before the final of that very competition against Manchester City.
“We have four big games in front of us and it’s been such a strange season but we have everything in our hands and we know we have to fight for it.”
Then, maybe, will really be the time for hugs.
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