Kurt Zouma's dominant performances show he is on his way to becoming Chelsea mainstay
It all started, as with so much in the world of football at present, with Harry Kane. Tottenham had started the game at Stamford Bridge at breakneck speed, with the striker picking Gary Cahill’s pocket on the left wing before turning him inside out and getting a shot away. A clash of heads for Cahill with Jan Vertonghen and another golden chance for Kane that came back off the crossbar convinced José Mourinho to withdraw the England centre-back at the midway point.
The very next game brought Chelsea’s first league defeat of the season at Newcastle and it was a failure to make a routine clearance by Cahill that allowed Papiss Demba Cissé to open the scoring. Respective ratings of 6.20 and 6.44 in those matches for Cahill were definitely below par. He is arguably yet to recover.
Although Cahill retained his place in the Chelsea team for the ensuing matches, Kane again proved to be his downfall in the 5-3 defeat at White Hart Lane. It speaks volumes that the precocious Kurt Zouma – signed in the summer presumably as a long-term replacement for John Terry – has now usurped Cahill in Mourinho’s thoughts. Still some way from the finished product Zouma has a lot to learn but is showing the potential to, at the very least, become a markedly better footballer than Cahill.
In another clean sheet and another victory on Wednesday night, Zouma was calm and assured in possession while dealing with the physical battle that Romelu Lukaku brought adeptly. When the Belgian ran through on goal early on, the line kept by Zouma and Terry was incorrectly adjudged to have played him onside, when in fact they were perfectly in tune and Lukaku was half a yard beyond them.
In the second half, when the striker turned Zouma and charged into the area he recovered exceptionally well against a player far from lacking in pace to force a corner. From the resulting set-piece, the ball was temporarily cleared before making its way back out wide to Bryan Oviedo.
The Costa Rican had all the time in the world to pick out a cross and Zouma, too concerned with the whereabouts of John Stones, whom he had been marking at the initial corner, forewent his responsibilities for the near-post area he should have been patrolling, and Lukaku would have scored from 5 yards but for a brilliant Petr Cech save. That, however, was the only blip in another fine performance from the youngster.
A terrific athlete, quick off the mark and a monster in the air, Zouma is already beginning to pay dividends on the hefty sum of £12m paid for his services last summer. Large fees for young centre-backs are often misguided pieces of business, especially when the likes of Cahill can be purchased for £7m.
That looks like an incredible deal compared to the likes of the £10m Man Utd paid for Chris Smalling and £17m for Phil Jones, which still do not truly look like risks that were worth taking. It is possible to spend those sums on players with much more experience in a position where knowhow is arguably paramount. Zouma, on the other hand, is proving an exception to the rule.
The inexplicable and wholly inexcusable 4-2 defeat to Bradford in the FA Cup was the only 1 of the 11 games Zouma has started in a Chelsea kit in which they have been defeated. Granted, he has faced a lot of so-called ‘lesser’ teams, but has come into his own of late, helping the Blues to an important point at home to Manchester City before this week’s win over Everton. It is significant that Cahill was selected for the trip to goal-shy Aston Villa.
In 9 Premier League and Champions League appearances, Zouma has displayed the range of his talents, winning 10 of the 14 aerial duels he has contested, while maintaining 87.8% pass success. While he is tough to beat in the air, he is even more difficult to overcome on the floor.
He is making a tackle every 58.6 minutes – significantly more often than either Terry (77.1) or Cahill (79.3) – but even more astounding is the fact that he has been dribbled past just once in 586 minutes of action. He is yet to be dribbled past at all in the Premier League.
And this is no coincidence. In 69 career league appearances, the Frenchman has been beaten only 7 times. In 18 games for Saint Etienne in the 2012/13 season – when Zouma was only 18 – he wasn’t dribbled past on a single occasion. His power and strength along with a positional sense that defies his age, Zouma is developing into one of the most formidable defenders around. Remarkably, he is still only 20 years of age.
He is down-to-earth and simply seems to be grateful that he has the chance to play at this level, while also recognising that to fulfil his exceptional talent, hard work and dedication are of utmost importance. It is fitting that Zouma, a tough tackler on the pitch and a likeable and cheerful character off it, is named after Kurt Sloane from the 1989 movie Kickboxer, and also has ‘Happy’ as his middle name.
“My parents decided that if they gave me that name I’d be hard and always have a smile”. It certainly seems to be working, and he has everything necessary to become a mainstay in the Chelsea defence for a long time yet.