At nearly every position, Roman Abramovich has provided Jose Mourinho with multiple world-class options from which to choose. The Portuguese manager has been tasked to select the best of each and win Chelsea commensurate silverware.
With the Premier League season starting next Saturday, Mourinho will become a boxing promoter of sorts—pitting and evaluating his players against each other in friendlies and training, attempting to find the strongest links.
After the Blues' transfer window, there are three bouts of worthy distinction:
|The Main Event: GK||Petr Cech||vs.||Thibaut Courtois||9 August|
|Undercard No. 2: RW/RAM||Andre Schurrle||vs.||Willian||8 August|
|Undercard No. 1: RB||Branislav Ivanovic||vs.||Cesar Azpilicueta||7 August|
From 7-9 August we will break down each positional competition and lend an opinion for which player should make Mourinho's first-choice starting XI.
Undercard No. 1: Branislav Ivanovic vs. Cesar Azpilicueta
After Chelsea's woeful offensive display in the 2013-14 season, the fact that Mourinho has tinkered with his back four seems rather unfair. Neither Ivanovic nor Azpilicueta deserve to be benched but, with the arrival of Filipe Luis, Stamford Bridge's full-back balance has been disrupted.
This shift leaves Mourinho with a quandary: "Do I keep Ivanovic at right-back and sit Azpilicueta in favour of Luis, or bench Ivanovic and let Azpilicueta play his natural right-back?"
In August of 2013, Ivanovic and Ashley Cole were the automatic full-back selections; Azpilicueta was the odd-man out. Then Mourinho did something strange: He benched the venerable Cole after a November loss to Newcastle United.
Azpilicueta played left-back and Chelsea lost just one of their next 19 EPL fixtures.
By the numbers, Ivanovic's 2013-14 season was stellar. The Serbian international logged 35 Premier League appearances, registering three goals. By comparison, Fernando Torres scored five goals in 30 appearances—both players scoring winning goals vs. Manchester City.
Work rate, tenacity and aerial prowess are not issues with Ivanovic—as he is excellent in each facet—the Serb's two major cons, though, are rather damning.
Firstly, the Serbian is a natural centre-back. His proclivity for sinking into the 18-yard box, rather than defending the flank is exposed on many occasions. The likes of Willian, Andre Schurrle and Mohamed Salah were relied upon ad nauseam last season to track back and cover gaps.
Second, and most importantly, the defender is a poor crosser.
Upon his arrival in west London, Ivanovic's offensive obligation was to knock the ball forward and hope Didier Drogba—in his prime—would bully a centre-back and create something magical or find a simple pass to a midfielder. With Fernando Torres and Samuel Eto'o in the fold last year—added with playing on the flank—there was no simple approach.
Many times it looked as if the opposition's game plan was to leave Ivanovic free on the right and let him send non-threatening balls in the penalty area. It worked for the most part.
Azpilicueta, on the other hand, did not have a stupendous statistical 2013-14: Amassing zero goals and zero assists in 29 EPL matches. That said—minus a dodgy penalty conceded vs. Sunderland and an own goal vs. Cardiff City—the Spanish international was virtually unblemished.
Despite being right-footed, and having to make up for Eden Hazard's lack of defensive motivation, the 24-year-old defender took to left-back naturally—making the purchase of the seasoned veteran Luis feel rather unnecessary.
Plugging the former Atletico man into a known commodity is undoubtedly a risk on Mourinho's part. As the Premier League's best defence last season needed little in terms of improvement. Should Luis not adapt to the Portuguese's ethic, the option of Ivanovic to right-back and Azpilicueta reprising his 2013-14 exploits seems plausible.
Luis, regrettably for the incumbents, seems a stock Mourinho player. The Brazilian turning 29 years old in less than 48 hours—along with his £16 million transfer fee—would suggest he will be given every opportunity to adapt.
Having three terrific full-back options, Mourinho should elect the two with limited use elsewhere: That being Luis and Azpilicueta. Ivanovic can play in central defence and could be used in cup ties or permanently were an injury to sideline Gary Cahill or John Terry.
Starting Azpilicueta would also signal another loss for the so-called "Old Guard" under Mourinho. Cole, Frank Lampard and Michael Essien are gone; Ivanovic, Petr Cech and John Obi Mikel are on the ropes, while Drogba and Terry seem to be untouchables.
"Hair-splitting" describes this process.
The Blues are sure to receive outstanding production from whichever right-back is elected No. 1; however, considering future continuity, general form and the interchangeability of Ivanovic, Azpilicueta looks the best option for Mourinho's 2014-15 Chelsea outfit.
Result: Cesar Azpilicueta wins by majority decision.
Undercard No. 2: Andre Schurrle vs. Willian
The Main Event: Petr Cech vs. Thibaut Courtois