Chelsea’s defence has improved markedly over the past few weeks, in which they conceded just one goal in six games.
Summer arrivals Thiago Silva and Edouard Mendy have been receiving praise for the improvements, and they are deserving of it. But one player who sometimes goes under the radar by virtue of having been there already is Kurt Zouma, yet the Frenchman has been monumental.
When Zouma first signed for Chelsea from St Etienne in 2014, much excitement surrounded the transfer. He was even touted as a potential long-term successor to John Terry. He became a big part of Chelsea’s defence in 2015/16 but any progress, even in that tempestuous season, was halted by a cruciate ligament injury sustained as he landed awkwardly following an aerial duel in a 1-1 draw with Manchester United.
Following loans with Stoke City and Everton to aid his comeback, Zouma returned to the Chelsea team under Frank Lampard, becoming the one constant of their backline. And it is now starting to pay off.
- Age: 26
- League stats under Frank Lampard
- Clearances: 148 (most at club)
- Recoveries: 178 (seventh)
- Aerial duels: 171 (second)
- Interceptions: 67 (joint-third)
- Football Index value: £0.39 (Sell) – £0.59 (Buy)
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Zouma has missed just one game so far this season, left out of the squad for Chelsea’s 3-3 draw away to West Bromwich Albion (amid links to Everton), as Lampard experimented with his centre-back options both on the pitch and the bench.
In all but one of his 12 appearances across all competitions has Zouma played the full 90 minutes. When he has been on the pitch, Chelsea have looked more secure defensively, conceding seven goals, including two against Liverpool when the Blues were reduced to 10 men following Andreas Christensen’s red card.
Zouma currently leads the way among Chelsea defenders for clearances (36), aerial duels (27) and interceptions (nine) in the Premier League this season, assuming most of the active defensive responsibility when on the pitch. He has also found his feet (or head) further up the pitch, having already achieved his best-ever scoring tally for a single season (three goals).
The Frenchman is also becoming more composed on the ball, too, his passing less erratic than last season. This new Zouma is more than happy to play out from the back under pressure but still knows when it is best to simply boot the ball into the stands, something he will have undoubtedly picked up from his time playing with David Luiz.
So far this season, Zouma has been part of five different centre-back units, playing alongside Antonio Rudiger, Andreas Christensen, Fikayo Tomori, Cesar Azpilicueta and Silva. The partnership with the latter has, by far, been the most successful.
In the six games the pair have played together, including as part of a trio alongside Azpilicueta, Chelsea have conceded just one goal, to David McGoldrick in their 3-1 win over Sheffield United in the Premier League.
It is this partnership, alongside Zouma’s general improvements, that has reportedly convinced Chelsea to offer him a new long-term contract that will keep him at a club that just a few months ago supposedly considered selling him.
And the rewards do not stop there. Zouma is back in the France squad, having had to deal with famously tough competition among Les Bleus available centre-backs over the past few seasons. Since his debut in 2015, Zouma has made just six appearances for France, and even when called up in the past the 26-year-old has often been left on the bench.
But on Wednesday Zouma got his first start for Les Bleus since June 2019 (albeit in defeat against Finland), and Didier Deschamps revealed any appearance for the centre-back came through his form.
“There’s competition everywhere,” Deschamps said ahead of the Finland game.
“Kurt has been with us for a while, he’s been called up many times but hasn’t played that much.
“If I pick him it’s because I think he’s better than the other people because of what he’s doing at Chelsea.
“He had a few injuries in a row but now he’s been very fit for a while, he’s very calm, so he’s here.”
His comeback with France didn’t end so well, but Zouma is certainly enjoying the best football of his career so far and perhaps no other player has materially benefitted more so from Chelsea’s newfound defensive robustness.