There aren’t too many players that have arrived for £7million who have been quite as successful as César Azpilicueta has at Chelsea.
The 27-year-old Spaniard is undoubtedly one of the best defenders in the Premier League and has played a crucial part in the Blues’ title challenge, with Antonio Conte’s side sitting ten points clear at the top of the table and and looking like champions-elect.
After arriving as a right-back from Marseille, Azpilicueta was switched to the left under José Mourinho, displacing Ashley Cole and becoming one of the best full-backs in the league.
While he carried on in that role initially under Antonio Conte, after the Italian’s switch to a 3-4-3, he has reinvented himself at right centre-back, and is still one of the best defenders in the league.
So just how good is he?
The managers’ view
When speaking about his current tactical system, Conte was full of praise for the 27-year-old, who has played every single Premier League minute of Chelsea’s season so far.
“This system [3-5-2] was in my mind when we planned the season with the club,” Conte said.
READ MORE: How Antonio Conte Can Avoid The Champions' Curse That Claimed Jose Mourinho and Claudio Ranieri
“We have two systems, 4-2-4 and 3-4-3. When I switched to this system, I felt it was a good fit for our players. We do not lost offensively but we are better defensively.
“We found players not to adapt, but to play in different roles compared to the past.
“Like Azpi, he is incredible in this new role, he is one of the best in the world in this role.”
High praise indeed, but former boss José Mourinho went further back in 2014.
“Champions League is the competition I think everybody wants to win in football,” he said.
“The competition where normally every big club is, so obviously it’s the competition that every club wants and every player, every coach dreams to win.
“Azpilicueta is the kind of player I like a lot, I think a team with 11 Azpilicuetas probably could win the competition because football is not just about the pure talent.
“Football is also about character and personality and Azpilicueta has all those traces of a winning personality.”
Jose Mourinho: A team with 11 Azpilicuetas could win the Champions League. pic.twitter.com/El9si4Bnmp
— sly (@slyviaazzhr) May 4, 2014
Mourinho is such a fan of the Pamplona native that he wanted to bring him to Manchester United in the summer, according to Spanish daily AS, though the €15million fee being quoted seems ridiculously low.
The defenders’ view
Indeed, you would expect to pay more than €15million for someone described as ‘the best defender in the league.’
Those are the words of former Liverpool defender Jamie Carragher.
“You can talk about full-backs now being wingers. If there was any full-back who I’d want in my team it’d be Azpilicueta, straight in,” the Sky Sports pundit said back in December.
“You know what you’re getting week in, week out.”
It’s a point of view shared by former Chelsea left-back Ashley Cole.
“I feel privileged he took my position,” he said.
“You see how he trains, how he recovers and gets back in position.
“He’s unstoppable now, especially as he’s got that extra protection with David Luiz next to him.
“He’s strong, fast and doesn’t want to be passed in one-on-one situations and if you have that mentality you’ll be tough to play against.”
Does Azpilicueta deserve the praise?
Quite simply, yes, Azpilicueta does deserve the praise thrown his way.
If you look at the people praising him: Conte, Mourinho, Carragher and Cole, they all know a thing or two about winning teams and strong defences.
The defender is so good at so many different aspects of the game.
In the Blues’ win over Arsenal this season, he snuffs out any danger straight away, by reading the play, getting goalside of the defender and making the challenge, ultimately coming away from the ball and setting up a Chelsea break.
Again, against Arsenal, you can see how he doesn’t panic as the last man when the Gunners try to launch a counter-attack.
While Mesut Özil waits for the ball to reach him, Azpilicueta is quicker, gets there in front of the German and sends Chelsea on the attack again, killing all chance of danger.
Against Bournemouth, you can also see how he gives his fellow defenders protection.
With David Luiz drawn out wide on a quick Bournemouth counter, the Spaniard gets across to time a perfect challenge to block the cross and stop Joshua King from getting what would have been an almost-certain goal.
Againast Manchester City, the 27-year-old showed the pace that Cole spoke about.
With Chelsea caught up the pitch as City broke and right wing-back Victor Moses nowhere to be seen, Azpilicueta bombed back to nullify any attack and win the ball back – everything you want from a defender.
But he isn’t only very good defensively, it’s often forgotten that he offers a lot going forward.
And with Conte liking his defenders to push forward, Azpilicueta can take full advantage of it to great effect.
Against Crystal Palace (above) he set up the winner for Diego Costa with a scrumptious cross.
After the game, then Eagles boss Pardew said: “You don’t really expect a centre-half to have that quality – it was a Cesc Fàbregas-type ball for the goal.”
When he plays at left-back, which he hasn’t done for a bit admittedly, he also has that skill.
You can see against West Ham how he drew Gökhan Töre in, before beating him with a nice bit of skill and speeding past him, setting Chelsea on the front foot.
Azpilicueta is one of those players who seems to thrive wherever he plays across the back line, and Chelsea know just how important that can be – they had one of them in William Gallas when they won the title back in 2005.
While the likes of Eden Hazard, Costa and N’Golo Kanté will rightly get the plaudits at the end of the season, Azpilicueta should really be up there too, as one of the best players in one of the best defences in the league.
And when there are a number of Chelsea transfer rumours circling in the summer, be sure that Azpilicueta's place in the team is assured.