Defender Cesar Azpilicueta has become Chelsea's new assist king
After scoring six times in his first six Premier League games and having netted a match-winning hat trick at Stoke on Saturday, Alvaro Morata is rightfully receiving plaudits from all corners. Some understandably questioned the wisdom of spending £58 million on a player who has never been a regular for either Real Madrid or Juventus. His goals and all-round play have, however, seen any dissenting voices quietened.
And yet, like all strikers that lead the line by themselves, Morata is at the mercy of the service supplied to him. Apart from his wonderful solo goal that made it 3-0 at the Bet365 Stadium, all of his strikes have been created by others though the pleasantly surprising fact is that four of them have emanated from a rather unlikely source.
Cesc Fabregas formed a devastating understanding with Diego Costa and it was assumed he would have the responsibility of replicating that bond with Chelsea's record signing. As it happens, he is yet to directly assist Morata this season even if he has been instrumental on occasion. To date, the only time they have linked up to find the net was when Morata laid on the opener for Fabregas in the 2-0 win over Everton. That will surely change with time but it is encouraging that in his place somebody else is supplying the bullets to the centre-forward.
Enter Cesar Azpilicueta. The defender has shown himself capable at excelling anywhere in the back line and now his versatility has turned to creating goals. Four times he has made the decisive pass and on each occasion it has been for Morata's benefit. Two of those have been virtually identical -- strikes against Everton and Leicester -- where an unchecked surge forward from right centre-back followed by an arcing cross away from the goalkeeper has been nodded home by his compatriot. The trick was almost repeated between the pair early in the goalless draw with Arsenal only for Morata to head just wide. If those moves looked familiar, that's because they bore an uncanny resemblance to Costa's winning goal at Crystal Palace last season.
Against Stoke, the two Spaniards combined on two separate occasions. Azpilicueta playing a neat ball over the top of the host's high defensive line that the striker exploited with his pace for the first and then an unselfish chest down in the box for Morata to claim the match ball.
Such regularity suggests this is no freak occurrence and is actually a pre-ordained avenue of attack. That Costa goal at Palace last season would seem to ratify that point. And it makes sense. The dazzling creative talents at the feet of Eden Hazard, Willian, Fabregas and Pedro Rodriguez mean they will occupy the minds of opposing teams with plans having been put in place prior to the game in order to stop them feeding Morata. Marcos Alonso would probably be next on the list of those that need watching with David Luiz's long-raking passes just behind. That a player like Azpilicueta, one who is not renowned for his ability to unlock defences, can add further weaponry to an already potent side is a huge asset to Antonio Conte.
The four assists that the richly deserving vice-captain at Chelsea has from his opening six games are just one fewer than his tally in each of his previous two Premier League campaigns. In fact, his biggest haul is the six assists garnered in his debut season in 2012-13 so he looks set to eclipse that record. With Hazard beginning the season recovering from injury and Fabregas not guaranteed a place in the starting eleven, his contribution has been vital.
Whether Azpilicueta will continue to be as prolific as the season progresses remains to be seen. His primary role is keeping the ball out at the other end of the pitch, something he generally does magnificently as the best all-round defender at the club. Conte will be keen for him to focus on that part of his job though the defensive system employed by the manager means that Azpilicueta will always have the opportunity to get forward to augment the attack safe in the knowledge there are two other centre-backs covering any space left behind.
It is unlikely that Stamford Bridge will witness many -- if any -- forays forward from the 28-year-old when Manchester City visit this Saturday. The game plan will almost certainly be for Chelsea to sit deep and play on the counter-attack against Pep Guardiola's free-flowing side meaning that Azpilicueta will be preoccupied with executing his day job as well as possible. But against teams that allow Chelsea to play on the front foot, do not be surprised to see him serving up more chances for Morata to devour.
Phil is one of ESPN's Chelsea bloggers. You can follow him on Twitter @PhilLythell.