It’s hard to imagine that just over a year ago, Chelsea were sitting in 12th with 33 points going into Matchday 27 and were simply looking to stop the bleeding in a season that would eventually see them finish 10th.
Fast forward to 2017 and the Blues are sitting pretty at the top of the Premier League and showing a level of consistency that most pundits agree will see them hoist the Premier League trophy this season.
Even more impressive is that this is essentially the same side that underperformed so badly last season. The additions of Marcos Alonso, David Luiz, and N’Golo Kante, along with the recall of Victor Moses have certainly helped, but by and large, manager Antonio Conte has revived the confidence and ambition of a squad that looked flat and uninspired in defence of their title.
It’s led to a number of players putting in exceptional performances that will lead to them being considered for PFA and FWA Footballers of the year at the end of the season.
That also means that the competition for Chelsea player of the year will be a competitive one, and at this point, the winner will depend on what you’re looking for as player of the year.
Two players that will be amongst the favourites to win Chelsea’s player of the year will be Diego Costa and Eden Hazard. Ironically, both players were accused last season of underperforming to the extent that they were accused of helping to get manager Jose Mourinho sacked.
This season, their performances have been much improved, with Costa registering 16 goals and 5 assists and Hazard scoring reaching double digits with 10 goals and 4 assists.
N’Golo Kante’s importance to the team cannot be underestimated. Despite the fee of £32 million, Kante might be the most important signing of the transfer window, as his presence in midfield has allowed the Chelsea front three of Hazard, Costa, and either Pedro or Willian to play with more freedom and less defensive responsibility.
Kante is averaging a team-high 3.6 tackles per game and 2.4 interceptions per game and has been vital to helping the Blues control the midfield after the switch to a back three gave him a less restrictive role than he had as a holding midfielder in a 4-3-3.
The Kante effect might be even more pronounced given the change of fortunes of Chelsea this season and the subsequent struggles of his former side, Leicester City. Leicester have endured similar struggles to Chelsea last season, and when watching the Foxes, it’s clear that they do miss Kante’s ability to break up play and protect the back four.
That’s an issue that the Chelsea had last season in defence of their title, and Kante has plugged a similar gap for the Blues this season.
The unsung hero, and possibly the most underappreciated player for Chelsea this season, is Cesar Azpilicueta. (I bet you wouldn’t have waged your trusty pair of Adidas Gazelles from @scottsmenswear against Kante?) While Hazard and Costa get credit for their attacking ability and Kante gets the plaudits for his ability to break up play in the middle, it’s Azpilicueta who’s become the lynchpin of a defence that is the second best in the Premier League this season, conceding just 19 goals.
So far in his Chelsea career, Azpilicueta has played all over the back line, but has found a new home as the right centre back in a back three. It’s actually one of the many roles that the Spaniard had played in his youth before Osasuna gave him his debut as a right back, the position that he’s best known for.
Statistically, Azpilicueta is second to only Kante in tackles and interceptions per game, and he’s also been vital in Chelsea’s efforts to play the ball out from the back, registering more completed passes than any Chelsea player this season.
While all the candidates listed for player of the year have been exceptional, for me, Cesar Azpilicueta would be Chelsea’s player of the year. Quite simply, the Blues don’t have any players in his position that provide a reasonable facsimile of his ability to read the game, defend in one-on-one situations, and also keep possession when bringing the ball out from the back.
N’Golo Kante would run a close second, simply because of his influence in the midfield. But I think this season, Azpilicueta has shown himself to be an indispensable member of the squad and is part of the reason that the switch to a back three has been so successful.