Antonio Conte doesn’t come across as a massive fan of the sitcom 30 Rock, but perhaps he caught the episode in which Alec Baldwin’s character Jack Donaghy warns Tina Fey’s Liz Lemon to “never badmouth synergy”.
For many, the word may be the epitome of corporate jargon, but for Donaghy and Conte, it’s the key to success. In the case of the Chelsea coach, it is the synergy between César Azpilicueta and Álvaro Morata which is particularly important, with the defender having now assisted five of the striker’s seven Premier League goals this season. “It is not the first time [the pair have linked up],” the Italian said after Sunday’s 1-0 victory over Manchester United, in which they combined to produce the winner. “But I don’t want to talk about the combination too much because otherwise our opponents will try to prepare against them!”
No other player in the English top flight has set up more goals for one teammate this year than Azpilicueta, which is particularly impressive given that he usually plays in the back line and rarely any further forward than right-wing-back. Just three months into the 2017/18 campaign, the Osasuna youth graduate has already matched his total assists tally from the previous two seasons, helped by the arrival of a player who he understands almost telepathically.
Of course, there is far more to the Azpi-Alvi connection than just a good off-pitch relationship and understanding, as they put in plenty of hours on the training ground to perfect the former’s delivery to the latter. The fact that many of the assists have been similar in nature shows that they are no fluke, with the hard and high crosses against Everton, Leicester and Manchester United almost identical. There was another similar chance created from a deep Azpilicueta cross in the goalless draw against Arsenal, only for the centre-forward to nod that one just wide.
There is, therefore, a special understanding between these two players, one which should bring Chelsea many more goals and points. And, one has to wonder, could it do likewise for Spain?
At the beginning of the 2018 World Cup qualifying campaign, neither player was a starter in La Roja coach Julen Lopetegui’s Spain lineup, with Diego Costa instead leading the line up top and with Dani Carvajal occupying Azpilicueta’s natural right-back spot. There wasn’t even a place for the versatile Chelsea vice-captain in central defence or at left-back given the presence of Gerard Piqué, Sergio Ramos and Jordi Alba.
Morata has little by little worked his way into the starting XI, aided by Diego Costa’s falling out of fitness, but Azpilicueta still cannot break his way into the national team coach’s plans. In fact, the only World Cup qualifier he featured in was the 1-0 victory over Israel last time out, when the nation’s ticket to Russia had already been confirmed. Now Azpilicueta has been completely left out of the latest Spain squad for this week’s friendlies against Costa Rica and Russia. Even if Lopetegui is testing out some new faces for these non-competitive games, this is still a blow for the defender as he is one of the faces who should surely be given another audition in the XI.
All of this suggests that Lopetegui is not prepared to transplant Chelsea’s favourite Hail Mary pass into the Spain playbook and that the best Azpilicueta can hope for next summer is a place on the bench as a backup utility man.
This, though, could be a major missed opportunity. While Carvajal – currently out of action due to a heart condition – is surely a better pound-for-pound right-back than Azpilicueta, he just doesn’t possess that same chemistry with the man most likely to wear No.9 for La Roja next summer. They may have spent two seasons together at Real Madrid, yet Carvajal never once assisted Morata for Los Blancos, while the only two times he has done so was for the Spain Under-21s. Carvajal and Morata have played 2,731 minutes together over the course of their careers and those two assists are the only time they directly linked up for a goal, whereas Azpilicueta has teed up the Chelsea striker five times already in just 1,276 minutes. That’s 1,366 minutes per assist versus 255. That’s a potential difference-maker at a major tournament.
Of course, a right-back’s primary job is to defend, but in modern football that alone is unlikely to be enough to win a World Cup. That’s why Azpilicueta, who is still just about as talented a defender as Carvajal, should be considered for a more prominent role in Russia next summer. He has more synergy with Morata than the Real Madrid No.2 and, as Jack Donaghy would advise, that should never be badmouthed.