If Jose Mourinho sticks to his previous policy in the FA Cup, Ashley Cole will start at left-back for Chelsea on Saturday afternoon. If, though, he decides he will pick his strongest team, because the opposition is Manchester City, it will be Cesar Azpilicueta again. This is what the man widely regarded as having succeeded Paolo Maldini as the best left-back in the world has become: a back-up to be used in the less-important competitions.
His relegation has come with unexpected speed. Cole turned 33 in December. He is ageing but he is far from old. Maldini, of course, went on till he was 40, and if Cole cannot match the genetics and lifestyle to replicate the Italian’s endurance, there is no reason to think he should not have at least a couple more decent seasons in him.
No shocking signs of decline had been in evidence. His pace, perhaps, wasn’t quite what it was, and he got forward less, although given the way Branislav Ivanovic surged forward on the right, it seemed rather to suit Chelsea to have a counter-balance on the left.
At the end of last season, as he was awarded a golden cap for making 100 international appearances for England and given the honorary captaincy for the friendly against Ireland, it seemed reasonable to talk about him as England’s one genuinely world-class player and to reflect how unfortunate Leighton Baines was that his career had coincided with Cole’s.
Now, though, the England manager Roy Hodgson has hinted he may not include Cole in his squad for the World Cup, preferring to take Southampton’s Luke Shaw as cover for Baines. “We know what Ashley can do,” Hodgson said. “We know how fit he keeps himself, how experienced he is. I certainly wouldn’t write Ashley Cole out of any plans because he wasn’t playing in his club team. But he will have to accept, like everyone else, that competition for his place in the club team and international team gets stronger all the time, and I will have a decision to make.”
The big question, though, is what suddenly happened to make Mourinho decide he was better off with a converted right-back on the left than Cole.
Cole played in nine of the first 10 league games of the season, missing only the 4-1 win over Cardiff City, when he had a rib injury, but after that 10th game, the 2-0 defeat at Newcastle on November 2, he did not play again until the 1-0 win over Swansea City on December 26, as Mourinho shuffled his pack to preserve freshness over the Christmas period.
The two starts in early January seemed to be born of the same desire to give Azpilicueta a rest. Even worse, for Cole, there is now talk of Chelsea signing the 18-year-old Shaw, which would surely end his Chelsea career.
With other players, you suspect, there would have been briefings, leaks to newspapers that might have hinted at what is going on, but Cole effectively cut off all contact with the media after a series of stories about his questionable behaviour, on and off the pitch.
The result is a vacuum, a player who has gone from world-class to afterthought over the period of a couple of months. Cole had a poor game against Newcastle, struggling to deal with Moussa Sissoko on the break and looking jittery in possession and perhaps, because of that, he became the scapegoat.
To say Mourinho was still asserting his authority would be an exaggeration, but there was a sense at the time that he hadn’t quite got the squad behaving as a Mourinho squad. And Cole, perhaps, was a useful sacrifice.
He is not the player he was at his peak: stats on whoscored.com, of instance, show his interceptions per game – which can be taken as a rough measure of speed of thought and body and are key to the full-back’s art – have dropped from 2.3 per game in 2009/10 to 1.2 per game this season; he was dribbled past 0.5 times per game in 2009/10, 0.8 times per game this season; his fouls are up in that period too, from 0.6 per game to 0.8.
The whole picture is of decline: it is far from dramatic and is still at a level at which it is manageable, but it made sense to shake things up after that Newcastle defeat and Cole, for the first time in a decade, had become expendable.
Azpilicueta’s stats are not particularly better than Cole’s, but his more aggressive interpretation of the role is working and, moreover, shows how loyal Mourinho can be to players who follow his orders. It is working for Chelsea, but it does mean a major problem for Cole and for England.
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