Chelsea signed centre-back Kurt Zouma from Ligue 1 club AS St.Etienne in a deal that flew somewhat under the radar given the cluba s record sale of Juan Mata to Manchester United for A?37m a few days earlier. Having made his debut for St.Etienne as a 16 year-old, the French youngster was touted for greater things; he was extensively scouted by Europea s top clubs, including the likes of Manchester United. However, it was Jose Mourinho and Chelseaa s technical director Michael Emenalo who finally decided to take a gamble on the then 19-year-old, paying St.Etienne A?12m for the teenager, before promptly loaning him back to the French side for the remainder of the season.
Given there was no dearth of young central defenders on Chelseaa s books going into the summer of 2014 a including Nigerian Kenneth Omeruo who had impressed at the World Cup in Brazil, and Tomas Kalas who made an impression on his Premier League debut at Anfield in April a Zouma was widely expected to be loaned out for the season. Instead, Mourinho made the rather bold decision of not only selling David Luiz to PSG for a club-record fee of A?40m, but also loaning out Kalas and Omeruo, leaving Zouma as the cluba s third-choice centre-back behind captain John Terry and England international Gary Cahill. However, the Frenchmana s steady improvement in performances and consequent rise in stature has vindicated Mourinhoa s faith in him.
Blues fans watching the young centre-back for the first time in pre-season games during the summer had every reason to doubt the extent to which he would be involved in the season proper. Zouma had a torrid time against average teams a he had all the positional sense of David Luiz on a particularly bad day, constantly misjudged the flight of the ball and so mistimed his jump only to see the ball sail above his head, and looked clumsy and slow on the ball. Despite the poor showing however, Mourinho opted to promote Andreas Christensen from the academy instead of buying an established centre-back, which confirmed Zoumaa s position as first-choice back-up. With the teenager appearing to be well and truly out his depth, Chelsea fans entered the new season with some trepidation given the lack of depth in the centre-half department.
Even the most optimistic of Chelsea supporters, then, could not possibly have foreseen the improvement in the youngster. That Mourinho put his faith in Zouma in two of Chelseaa s biggest games so far this season a the Capital One Cup semi-final second leg against Liverpool and Chelseaa s potentially title-deciding clash against Manchester City a is evidence of the centre-backa s remarkable progress this season. His fortunes havena t changed overnight, however. Zouma has had to work hard and wait for his opportunities. His appearances were initially restricted to the early rounds of the Capital One Cup and the easier Champions League games including Maribor and Sporting Lisbon at home. Perhaps the defining moment in his fledgling Chelsea career came during the fixture against Tottenham Hotspur at Stamford Bridge in December, when Gary Cahilla s injury saw him taken off at half time. Whilst many expected Ivanovic to be moved to the centre, Mourinho opted to put his faith in Zouma.
Speaking after the game to Chelsea TV, assistant Steve Holland heaped praise on the Frenchman, saying, a Zouma was training magnificently for weeks and it was clear that it was his time. I thought his performance was immaculate. He is a player who has improved considerably since the start of the seasona . The 20-year-old has gone from strength to strength following that performance, starting games in the Premier league, and showing immense maturity and ability to keep some of Englanda s most feared attackers at bay, including Raheem Sterling, Sergio Aguero, and Romelu Lukaku. Kurt Zouma has forced his way into the first-team reckoning with his performances, and is now a quality option for his manager as an alternative to Cahill, whose dip in form this season has been untimely and damaging for Chelsea.
The former St.Etienne defendera s improvement can be explained, in part, by his ability to learn during training not only from the manager, but also from fellow centre-backs Cahill, and in particular, John Terry. Both Mourinho and Holland have waxed lyrical about the youngstera s fantastic attitude in training, but arguably the biggest catalyst in the upturn of his fortunes has been the time Zouma has spent on the pitch alongside Terry. When asked specifically how the cluba s influential captain helps him during games, the Frenchman replied, a He is one of the best defenders in the world. (He) talks to me during games, tells which position to take, when to go, when to stay. I am learning all the time.a
It is easy to see how beneficial this partnership has been for Zoumaa s development. Indeed, he has improved on several aspects of his game in comparison to pre-season. As Mourinho observed recently, the Frenchman is now more aware of his surroundings on the pitch and sees the bigger picture rather than fixating on the man he is trying to mark. This also means that he has a better understanding of picking the right occasions to follow an opposition striker dropping deep a evidenced by his performances against Man City and Everton in particular. Not only has he improved in terms of his positioning, but he has greatly reduced the occurrence of his mistimed leaps when heading the ball. He is also a better reader of the game, and appears to be more comfortable on the ball.
In addition to all of this, Zouma is blessed with all the physical attributes of a quality centre-back. He is extremely strong, especially in aerial challenges, and very quick a his recovery and tackle to stop Raheem Sterling from giving Liverpool the lead when through on goal evidence of that. Despite his size, the Frenchman also appears to be quite agile. These attributes lend themselves to games against opposition with quick, tricky forwards that are lethal on the counter-attack. Given Branislav Ivanovica s marauding role on the right flank, there is plenty of space left behind him for teams to exploit, and Chelseaa s right centre-back has to cover a large area, often being dragged out wide. The pro-active, faster Zouma is seemingly better equipped at dealing with these situations than the slower, more ponderous Cahill. Mourinho too, has recognised this, meaning that game time for Cahill has been significantly reduced of late.
Despite gaining infamy with a tackle on Thomas Guerbert that caused a double leg-break and resulted in a 10 game ban for the former St.Etinne defender in November 2013, Zouma has been remarkably disciplined in Chelsea blue a he has yet to be booked or sent off in any of his appearances in all competitions. Another extraordinary statistic that has emerged this season highlights his assuredness in central defence a prior to the game against Burnley last weekend, the Frenchman went 597 minutes in all competitions without conceding a single foul. Perhaps it would be worthwhile to investigate how many one on ones he has faced in this time, how many occasions there have been where he could have potentially committed a foul, or how many times he has let an opposition player past him without offering a tackle. However, it does show that he is far from clumsy and does not give away silly fouls a an under-rated quality in a defender.
Fortunately for Chelsea, the young centre-back also appears to have the mental fortitude and determination to succeed a factors that are often the making of a world class player. Zouma appears to be a calm, mature, and down to earth individual a something that can only hold him in good stead for the future. Whilst he is far from the finished article, and is not quite at the level of compatriot Raphael Varane, his performances are an encouraging sign for the future of not only Chelsea, but the French national team.
Kurt Happy Zouma will hope to follow in the footsteps of Marcel Desailly, Frank Leboeuf and William Gallas a all of whom turned out to be good signings for the club during successful periods. Chelseaa s latest French centre-back has the potential to reach the level of the ones that have gone before him, in an era that promises to be one of the most fruitful in Chelseaa s history.
If he maintains the standards he has set for himself with the performances against the likes of Man City, and indeed, goes above and beyond, the 20-year-old will have plenty to be happy about come the end of the season.