20 Defender Chelsea France
2014 has been...
A dream come true. Kurt Zouma claims he’s always loved Chelsea and that his favourite player as a child was John Terry. So, when he joined Chelsea in January from Saint-Etienne, he was understandably overjoyed. The little things help, too; the wheels of the transfer were greased when Jose Mourinho apparently called him and persuaded him personally to join the Blues. In French. Superbe!
The Lyon-born centre back has progressed enormously since becoming a senior pro at ASSE in 2011. He caught the eye of the experts early on and has featured in this list over multiple years, and he just keeps getting better and better.
As we reported last year Zouma began 2014 suspended, having picked up a ten-match ban for a red card challenge against Sochaux that had left his opponent with a serious injury. The lengthy ban does not indicate an especially dirty player, only that French football handles its response to bad injuries in a certain way.
After then overcoming a bout of illness he returned to action not with Chelsea, but in the green of Saint-Etienne, to whom he was immediately loaned back upon his switch to the Premier League. He’s taken all of this in his long stride, displaying a maturity and assuredness that permeates into his game on the pitch too.
Zouma is, above all, a very good player. He’s big and physical, excellent in the air, and outrageously strong. He shows fantastic recovery pace defensively, winning practically every foot race one could hope to throw at him. His positioning is decent, his tackling mostly very good and his overall aura is one of a player who’s going far and knows it, but also knows he must fulfil his promise to get there.
There’s some versatility in the Zouma mix. Predominantly a centre back, and undoubtedly at his best there, he was occasionally used at right back by ASSE and has also played there in the blue of the French national team’s under-age levels. He also played for the Ligue 1 club at least once in a defensive midfield role, but it’s imperative that his abilities on the ball don’t tempt future coaches into believing he should be further up the pitch. What’s wrong with defenders who can distribute the ball?
There’s little doubt that Zouma will blossom into exactly that kind of defender. Despite the obvious physical attributes that dominate his defensive game he’s a confident, if not exactly elegant, presence in possession. He is composed on the ball and rarely panics. He takes his time, finds his pass and has the technique to make it work. As a modern day defensive all-rounder, Zouma could become the genre’s archetype.
He’s a constant threat at attacking set pieces, gobbling up headers like they’re somehow oxygen to him. He’ll score plenty of goals in his career and has made an impressive start on that front already. It’s one of the many reasons the fans who watch him every week are quickly going to love him.
Zouma’s weaknesses, beyond the usual caveats about age and experience, are few. He remains slightly prone under deep crosses aimed towards a man behind him, where some support from a full back would go a long way towards easing the pressure. He’s still a little too aggressive at times, and that, coupled with his physique, means he gives away a few too many free kicks.
Zouma’s ending 2014 in a very different place to where he began. Despite reported loan interest in the summer from Sunderland and AS Monaco he stayed with Chelsea and is beginning to carve out his role this season. Mourinho’s keen, and Zouma’s getting there fast.
With Terry still providing a viable option at the back for Mourinho alongside long-term defensive leader Gary Cahill, Zouma’s having to bide his time. He debuted for the West London club in the League Cup and then made his first Premier League and Champions League appearances in October.
In the appearances he does make he’s winning the supporters and his coach over. Being in pole position when Terry moves on is of paramount importance.
At international level Zouma’s been groomed for a France place for years. Having first appeared for his country at Under-16 level in 2010 he went on to complete the set all the way to the Under-21s, enjoying a good deal of success along the way. Though uncapped at senior level at the time of writing, he was called up in November and the rest is just a matter of time.
The former ASSE man is a hugely exciting prospect for Chelsea. Everything’s there, some polished and some still a little rough, and his future is bright.
"Zouma has looked the business from a young age and he deservedly earned his big move in January. Jose Mourinho clearly sees him as a big part of Chelsea’s plans and Zouma is certainly capable of handling it. Signing him was a move for the long-term and it should prove a very good decision all round." - Chris Nee
"Kurt Zouma won 70% of his duels in Ligue 1 last season (96 of 138)." - OptaJoe
C+ The next step is the biggest.
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