Chelsea defender Cesar Azpilicueta believes Antonio Conte’s decision to rebuild the team’s back line has laid the foundations for their push towards the top of the Premier League table.
Conte’s side face Everton at Stamford Bridge on Saturday hoping to extend a run of four successive league wins since the head coach abandoned his original back four and installed a three-man central defensive unit.
That run of success –- achieved without a goal conceded — has moved the side to within a point of Manchester City, Arsenal and Liverpool who are tied on 23 points at the top of the table.
Diego Costa’s return of eight goals in 10 league games, together with Eden Hazard’s re-emergence after a disappointing last season, has given the side an effective cutting edge, but it is the team’s solid defensive displays that have caught the eye.
Azpilicueta, who has been operating on the right side of the three-man defence, hailed Chelsea’s recent fortitude at the back.
“As a defender, obviously we are all pleased when we don’t concede goals, the same way the strikers are when they score, but I think the teamwork is really important,” he said.
“We are defending as a team, which as a defender makes it easier for us and we are trying to concede even fewer chances. This is really important to be a solid team.
“Since we changed the system it has worked well for us in the league and obviously I try to adapt to it in the best way possible.”
Azpilicueta has moved inside from his usual full-back role to fit in alongside David Luiz and Gary Cahill, with club captain John Terry forced to take up a role on the bench.
And the Spain international added: “I have always felt the confidence of the manager since I arrived.
“Obviously I’m happy when the team wins and that is what I fight for. The last results were good –- four wins and we didn’t concede a goal –- so that shows a lot of teamwork and we want to keep going in that way.”
Last weekend’s win at Southampton confirmed Chelsea’s progress and Conte is expected to retain the same team for the visit of the Toffees.
Everton manager Ronald Koeman has praised his players for the speed with which they have been able to improve defending at set-pieces.
The Merseysiders conceded 14 goals in the Premier League from dead-balls under Koeman’s predecessor Roberto Martinez last season.
But ahead of their visit to Stamford Bridge, they have let in just one goal from a set-play in the Premier League this term.
“Of course, it was a big issue to change this, to have better defending and better offensive set-plays,” said Koeman.
“They conceded 14 goals from set-plays last season and that’s crazy,” the Dutchman added.
“We start to show clips from last season and put a different organisation in.
“We are giving more attention to set-plays at least twice a week. We even had a meeting about Chelsea, but only about set-plays.
“You can tell the players, but the best way is to show them the clips and ask them why they didn’t defend well and why they don’t continue defending their opponent.
“You need to make the players more involved. Of course, it’s finally my responsibility but the players need to be involved in set-plays. They also feel more responsible.”
Goalkeeper Maarten Stekelenburg is fit again after a foot problem although Koeman may stick with Joel Robles.
Everton are without the suspended Idrissa Gana Gueye while James McCarthy and Leighton Baines (both hamstring) are absent.