MARSEILLE, FRANCE - OCTOBER 19: Cesar Azpilicueta (L) of Marseille and Andrey Arshavin (R) of Arsenal during the UEFA Champions League Group F match between Olympique de Marseille and Arsenal FC at Stade Velodrome on October 19, 2011 in Marseille, France. (Photo by Michael Steele/Getty Images)
It's been pretty clear that Chelsea are looking for a right back this summer. Jose Bosingwa's gone, Paulo Ferreira is reasonably decrepit, neither Sam Hutchinson nor Todd Kane's ready to contribute significant minutes and although it'd have been kind of fun to try Ramires as our primary backup to Branislav Ivanovic, the idea of him forced into starting if the Serbian goes down is mildly nauseating.
And so Chelsea have gone looking for a new one. We've been linked to various options all summer long -- during the Euros we were talking about Mathieu Debuchy and Lukasz Piszczek, afterwards we supposedly looked rather seriously at Maicon and now that it's Olympics time the focus has shifted to Spain right back Cesar Azpilicueta. The chase for a new right back has been drawn out for long enough that I've caught myself remembering ol' Mr. Unibrow with more than a little fondness at times*.
*Don't worry! The mental spasm is only temporary.
But why Azpilicueta? It's fairly obvious that there are better players out there. Lille right back Debuchy, supposedly a Newcastle United target, is the name on most people's lists. He started for France at the Euros this summer; Azpilicueta couldn't even crack the first choice XI of a disappointing under-23 Spain team at the Olympics (neither could Oriol Romeu, incidentally).
Despite Lille throwing their toys out of the pram on Debuchy earlier on Thursday, I'd still guess that he gets sold this summer, and for a similar price to what Azpilicueta will fetch for Marseille. So why should Chelsea spend the same on a player who will help less next year?
I think the most obvious answer is that we're not looking for a starting right back. If you gave me a list of Ivanovic, Piszczek, Debuchy, Maicon and Azpilicueta, Ivanovic would almost always be the starter. He's simply a better player than the names on the market, and Chelsea have to realise that. There might be issues with depth in the centre that could force Ivanovic to play out of position in the middle, but a first-choice team should have him at right back.
In other words, any difference in actual ability between Debuchy and Azpilicueta is attenuated by the fact that both would be backups. If you think that Debuchy's worth, say, five goals a season more than Azpilicueta but that they'll only play half a year at Chelsea, it becomes two and a half goals. It still matters how good a player is, of course -- Chelsea aren't going to run Ferreira out as Ivanovic's understudy -- but ability alone doesn't tell the whole story.
Branislav Ivanovic will turn 29 years old next February. He's under contract through the 2015/16 season. Debuchy, on the other hand, has just turned 27. If he signs, I'd expect it to be on a four or five year contract. In other words, acquiring Debuchy would give us two good right backs in their prime who'll leave around the same time. It's a short term solution to a problem that could leave us with a major hole later on, the progress of Kane or Tomas Kalas nonwithstanding.
Azpilicueta, on the other hand, is both good enough to serve as a backup and four years younger than Debuchy. He's on the fuzzy borderline between prospect and senior player, but he's definitely got some development still left in him. If Chelsea sign Azpilicueta and he develops as expected, by the time Ivanovic was getting ready to be moved on we'd have a capable replacement in his prime.
If Chelsea are really looking at building a long-term dynasty, Azpilicueta's obviously the better option. He's a guy who could help us well down the road. No matter how good Debuchy is in the here and now, he's not going to be around for that long. The club seems willing to take a relatively minor short-term hit in order to acquire a decent prospect. That makes plenty of sense to me.