Kurt Zouma, the young defender from the eastern French city of Lyon, was signed from AS St. Etienne, in the January transfer window of the previous season, at the behest of Jose Mourinho and technical director Michael Emenalo.
Although, upon arrival, Zouma has had to be patient with opportunities, whenever they did arrive, especially during Cahill’s dip in form during mid-season, he has stood up to the plate. Let us take a look at how the French defender has fared whenever he has been called up to play.
With young defenders Tomas Kalas and Kenneth Omeruo loaned out at the start of the season, and David Luiz sold to PSG, the responsibility of being Chelsea’s backup defender was given to the 20-year-old Zouma. After some mildly impressive performances during Chelsea’s pre-season tour in Europe, his first competitive appearance came against Bolton Wanderers in the third round of the League Cup. And he scored on his debut, scoring the opener, with a headed goal from a corner. His second start for Chelsea came in the Champions League, where he helped keep a clean sheet, in the 6-0 drubbing of Maribor.
Zouma’s Premier League debut was as an injury time substitute in the disappointing 1-1 draw at Old Trafford, where Van Persie equalized right after Zouma entered the fray, replacing Willian. After impressive displays against Tottenham, Sporting CP and Derby, he scored his second goal for Chelsea in the 3-0 win against Watford in the FA Cup, showing signs of becoming just another goal-scoring defender for the club. Six days later, Zouma made his first start for Chelsea, at home to Newcastle United in place of Gary Cahill. The French defender put in an impressive display in the match, keeping out the likes of Remy Cabella and Moussa Sissoko, helping Chelsea to a 2-0.
Though initially restricted to domestic cup appearances, easy Champions League matches in the group stage, and cameos from the bench, slowly Zouma started to find his name in the starting line-ups of important to season-defining matches. Chelsea’s second leg semi-final against Liverpool at Stamford Bridge, which Chelsea won 1-0 in extra time, was somewhat of a breakthrough for the young defender. Starting a match of such importance for the first time, against a team as big as Liverpool, Zouma showed nerves of steel. He came off with a fairly impressive display, making as many as 11 important clearances.
Chelsea’s match against Manchester City on 31st January 2015 was being regarded as the title decider then, before City’s eventual collapse. Even with Gary Cahill fit, Jose Mourinho showed faith in the young defender, putting him in the starting eleven. And that faith was repaid, with a man of the match performance, keeping the dangerous Aguero at bay for most of the match, pushing him to the outside of the box, stopping him from making direct runs. Even right at the end, Zouma made a match winning clearance, heading a cross out of harm’s way, with two City players behind him, readying themselves to score the winner. After the match, former Liverpool player, and current TV pundit Danny Murphy likened Zouma to former blue and world cup winner, Marcel Desailly, saying,
“He reminds me of France legend and former AC Milan and Chelsea defender Marcel Desailly with his power and presence, but the greatest quality he demonstrated against City was his calmness for his age – he did not once look panicked” (BBC)
After another full 90-minute appearance against Everton at home, Zouma completed 597 minutes of football, without conceding a foul, a rare achievement for a centre-back, which shows his impeccable tackling. According to Opta, up until the match against Burnley, Zouma had contributed to 6 clean sheets in his 9 appearances in the Premier League and the Champions League, with a tackle success rate of 50%, which was over the team average of 44.6%. He had made 3 blocks, 6 interceptions, and 24 clearances up until then.
The most telling contribution though, came at a very vital point of time, when Matic was suspended after a violent reaction against Burnley’s Ashley Barnes following a potentially career ending tackle, resulting in the tremendously consistent and impressive defensive midfielder being suspended against Tottenham at Wembley in the Capital One Cup Final. With Mikel out injured, Chelsea had no other recognized defensive midfielder, and thus Jose Mourinho looked to young Zouma to fill in. And it worked wonders, with Zouma using his speed and physical presence to stifle Spurs’ midfield, stopping the dangerous and classy Eriksen very efficiently. With in-form Spurs midfield trio Mason, Eriksen and Townsend unable to provide through passes to high flying Harry Kane, Tottenham were unable to unlock the Chelsea defense, and ultimately Chelsea won 2-0. Even Jose Mourinho likened him to Desailly this time. After the match, Zouma recorded 30 aerial duels won out of the 36 attempted till then in the season, in all competitions, which is an absolutely stunning testament to his aerial ability.
Zouma’s performances in his next match, away to West Ham, showed he just might be the heir to John Terry, with 100% success in all of the 5 attempted tackles, and 4 aerial duels won. Till then, having played only 5 times in the Premier League, Zouma averaged 1.3 tackles per game, which was 0.1 more than the legendary John Terry. With Cahill regaining his old form back, Zouma was restricted to a few substitute appearances against PSG, Hull City, and QPR.
However, his latest task was again in midfield, to negate the threat of the in-form Fellaini against the resurgent Manchester United, as they looked to halt Chelsea’s title charge at Stamford Bridge. And Zouma did just that, negating the threat of Fellaini, containing him with his physicality, with his imposing presence in midfield, not letting him get inside the box or take dangerous crossing positions.Against Manchester United, Kurt Zouma produced another performance that betrayed his age. Zouma made 5 clearances and made 2 important blocks, according to Squawka. Wayne Rooney, who was also deployed in midfield, recorded only 50% success in his tackles against Zouma’s 60%, while Ander Herrera, who played as United’s holding midfielder, recorded 0% success in defensive duels, compared to Zouma’s 17%. Captain John Terry praised the 20-year-old’s performance against the Reds, saying that he was ‘different class’ while boss Jose Mourinho said Zouma had taken Fellaini out of the game at Stamford Bridge. Speaking after the match, Mourinho said,
“Against Man United, he played to stop Fellaini from playing in the box. He is doing amazing jobs for us.He is mentally very, very strong, too. Not just physically, mentally he is very strong. He learned a lot by the tactical point of view from his arrival.So we can imagine with 20 years old, Chelsea has 10 years of Zouma.” (www.getwestlondon.co.uk)
Standing at this stage of the season, and evaluating Zouma in a total of 11 appearances in the Premier League, out of which he has started only 6, we see Zouma is in a much more favourable light when compared to some other very successful and able Premier League defenders. Arsenal’s Per Mertesacker, who has made 29 league appearances, has won only 18 of the 38 tackles, which is a success rate of only 47%, whereas Zouma records a success rate of 55%, winning 11 out of 20 tackles. Zouma has won 21 headed duels, out of his attempted 32, which nets a success rate of 66%, overshadowing Liverpool defender Mamadou Sakho’s 53% success, who has won only 36 of the 68 attempted headed duels. This just further illustrates the fact that when given the opportunity, Zouma can give a lot of experienced defenders a run for their money.
Due to Matic’s absence in the Capital Once Cup final, or due to the strategical needs, Zouma has had to deputize in midfield, and even then his stats are impressive. His passing accuracy stands at a healthy 81.7% in the Premier League averaging 20.9 passes per game. The passing accuracy jumps to a stunning 91% in Europe, where he made a total of 4 appearances this season, with an average of a whopping 44.3 passes per game. With 2 goals to his name already, we know he is a clear threat from set pieces too.
All these stats are a clear sign that Kurt Zouma is one of the best defenders in the making, with the proper mixture of defensive prowess along with the ability to read the game and hold the midfield. While one may argue that he is a born central defender, recent performances in big matches proves he can prove his mettle in midfield too. A player as versatile as Zouma, is always a valuable asset to any team in the world, and as John Terry’s career slowly nears the twilight, with maybe a couple of years more, Kurt Zouma seems all set to take the mantle.
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Edited By: Ojas Tripathi