Football Features

Cesar Azpilicueta goes into Alexander-Arnold mode vs Aston Villa as Chelsea take big step toward top-four finish

By Chris Smith

Published: 18:24, 21 June 2020

Chelsea made a triumphant return to action with a 2-1 win away at Aston Villa on Sunday. 

Having gone behind in the first half to a Kortney Hause effort, Frank Lampard’s men rallied after the break and sealed the three points thanks to two goals in two minutes from substitute Christian Pulisic and striker Olivier Giroud.

As always, a number of winners and losers emerged from the match, so let’s take a look at them.

Winner: Kourtney Hause

Kourtney Hause has been busy during lockdown, recording and releasing an R&B song titled “Worth It”, with all proceeds going toward helping the NHS battle against coronavirus. With all the negativity which has surrounded certain players recently, it’s great to see a youngster use his talents and initiative in such a positive way. It was fitting, then, that on his first game back in action, Hause opened the scoring for Villa with his first-ever Premier League goal.

A deep Douglas Luiz delivery from Villa’s right flank was met at the far post by Anwar El Ghazi but although Kepa Arrizabalaga was able to save the initial effort, he could only divert it into the path of Hause, who needed no second invitation to open his top-flight account.

Hause was excellent throughout the opening hour of the match, it’s just a shame for him that Villa weren’t able to hold onto the win to cap off what should have been a landmark day.

Loser: Ruben Loftus-Cheek

The most eye-catching part of Lampard’s team selection on Sunday was surely the inclusion of Ruben Loftus-Cheek, who was making his long-awaited return after a lengthy injury lay-off. However, if his performance on Sunday is anything to go by, it could be quite some time until we see the very best of the England international.

Loftus-Cheek was quite simply all over the place at Villa Park, failing to gel with the likes of Cesar Azpilicueta and Mason Mount throughout, resulting in misplaced passes and losses of possession. When he did pick up the ball in space, the 24-year-old all too often took the safe option, playing backwards passes when more ambitious through balls were on.

Loftus-Cheek was hooked in the 55th minute having taken just 25 touches of the ball and completed only 16 passes. Within seven minutes of his departure, Chelsea were 2-1 up and looking electric.

The minutes will be good for his recovery, sure, but it’s clearly going to take some time to get Loftus-Cheek back up to speed.

Winner: Christian Pulisic

Having not featured since New Year’s Day, the comeback of Pulisic was another development to fill Chelsea fans (and Lampard) with excitement. Fortunately for the Blues, his return to action was much more effective.

Just six minutes after coming on, it was Pulisic losing his man and racing in at the far post to poke home a beautiful Azpilicueta cross, firing Chelsea level and setting up their quickfire comeback. It was Pulisic’s first Premier League goal since early November and one you feel both he and his teammates desperately needed.

Loser: Kepa Arrizabalaga

OK, so Chelsea completed their comeback and left Villa Park with three points, but there will still be few fans left convinced that Kepa Arrizabalaga is the answer between the sticks.

The Spaniard failed to divert El Ghazi’s first-half effort away from danger, pushing the ball right into the path of Hause to open the scoring.

In isolation, you could perhaps say Kepa was unlucky, given the close proximity of El Ghazi’s effort. But this isn’t an isolated incident.

Kepa has now saved just 56.6% of the shots he’s faced this season, the lowest rate among Premier League goalkeepers to play 12 or more games. Given the Spaniard has already had to battle Willie Caballero for his starting spot this season, this will do little to convince Lampard to stick with him.

Winner: Olivier Giroud

For long stretches of this game, Olivier Giroud was truly terrible. Slow, languid and uninspired, Chelsea’s build-up play often broke down at the feet of the Frenchman. However, following the introduction of Pulisic and Ross Barkley after the break, the veteran striker came alive and showed us all why he remains such a useful player at this level.

Suddenly, Giroud seemed to have players buzzing around him when holding up possession and that little bit of extra space thanks to the increased mobility of Pulisic.

Then, of course, he did that thing all top strikers are known for; netting a goal even after a largely anonymous performance.

Sure, Giroud’s effort needed the help of a Conor Hourihane deflection to beat Orjan Nyland, but his intelligence to find space in the box was marvellous.

Loser: Dean Smith

It’s really not looking good for Villa now and Smith will be extremely worried about the precarious position they find themselves in after this latest defeat.

Sure, there were positives to take away from Sunday afternoon for the Villans. Smith’s men defended resolutely throughout, barring a two-minute collapse, and their crosses into the Chelsea six-yard box seemed to cause an array of problems.

However, the fact remains they did collapse and in doing so, they stay 19th in the table, a point behind West Ham in 17th with eight games remaining.

It’s now or never for Villa if they’re to avoid an immediate return to the Championship.

Winner: Cesar Azpilicueta

Known more as a brilliant organiser and defensive rock, Cesar Azpilicueta went full Trent Alexander-Arnold on us all here, providing the assists for both of Chelsea’s goals in the second half.

The first was an absolutely superb cross to the far post from the right flank, finding the onrushing Pulisic with supreme precision. The second was a cut-back to Giroud which displayed fantastic vision and awareness to find the Frenchman in space.

Alexander-Arnold is the only other right-back to have assisted twice in one Premier League game this season. This is a bit selective as several left-backs have done so too (Erik Pieters, Ben Chilwell, Robbie Brady), but worth noting is that Alexander-Arnold and Andy Robertson are the only Premier League defenders to have set up more goals this season than Azpilicueta, who has also scored twice.

He is also Chelsea’s joint-leading assist-maker for the top-flight season so far, alongside Willian.

Defensively solid he may be, but Azpilicueta is criminally underrated in the final third.