Kurt Zouma isn’t quite Chelsea’s new Desailly but has become the defender Jose Mourinho promised
Jose Mourinho is not a man easily impressed. So it was telling when, in March 2015, he was effusive in his praise of a 20-year-old Chelsea defender who had made only 17 appearances for the Blues.
“He is our new Marcel Desailly,” Mourinho proudly claimed after his side had defeated Tottenham Hotspur in the League Cup final. The player in question? Kurt Zouma.
Mourinho didn’t stop there, either. “Zouma now is 20,” he continued, “but one day, Zouma will be 23 or 24 and will be a player of great maturity and probably leadership, too, to replace John.”
So there you go. The new Desailly and the heir to John Terry, one of Chelsea’s most decorated players. No pressure, kid.
To his credit, Zouma never appeared burdened by the expectation placed upon him. He helped the Blues win the 2015 Premier League title and was a regular the following season. That is until February 2016.
Chelsea’s campaign was in ruins by that point. Mourinho had been sacked with the side in the bottom half of the table, Eden Hazard was on miserable form. But Zouma, he was a bright spot.
However, in a game against Manchester United, he landed awkwardly after jumping for a header. Zouma injured his ACL and required knee surgery. He was ruled out for nine months; his promising career instantly halted.
On his return, he struggled to break into Antonio Conte’s side – the Italian’s back three of Cesar Azpilicueta, David Luiz, and Gary Cahill set in stone. Chelsea won the title that season, 2016/17, but the French defender made only nine Premier League appearances.
He needed game time to fully recover and so he joined Stoke City on loan. A year later, he moved to Everton for the 2018/19 campaign.
Zouma performed admirably for both clubs and, after Frank Lampard’s appointment, was brought back into the Chelsea fold. Would this have happened if the Blues weren’t under a transfer ban? Who knows. But it was a chance for the centre-back to get his career at Stamford Bridge back on track.
The 26-year-old played regularly last term – 28 Premier League appearances – but was part of a defence that shipped goals at an alarming rate. And yet, despite that, the Blues finished in the top four.
Zouma was by far the biggest issue in Chelsea’s backline. And he was constantly shifted around by Lampard, left centre-back, right centre-back, used in a back three, it wasn’t easy for the Frenchman to find consistency.
That has all changed this season. The arrival of Thiago Silva – and we should mention Ben Chiwell and Edouard Mendy – has given the Blues’ defence the stability it desperately lacked. And, as a result, Zouma is thriving.
“I’ve been really impressed with Kurt, his form and what he’s given us,” Lampard told the Chelsea official website last month. “He’s scoring goals from set-pieces and defending set-pieces well which is a big part of our game, and something we can improve on from last year.”
Lampard added: “Thiago Silva’s experience and quality can rub off not just on Kurt but anyone he is paired with. He has helped Kurt and we need to sustain that level of performance to keep the good run of clean sheets we are on.”
The importance of Silva’s signing can’t be overstated. He oozes quality and brings an assuredness to defending that Chelsea have lacked since the days of Terry and Co. But, perhaps most importantly, it’s given Zouma a defined role in the backline: wrecking ball.
It’s noteworthy that (per FBRef) while Zouma is attempting marginally fewer passes this season to last (74.3 per 90 compared to 76.2) his pass completion has gone up from 89.4% to 91.3%.
He is also attempting few tackles per 90 (0.70 compared to 1.27), fewer pressures (4.20 compared to 6.81), and is carrying the ball less distance (139.4 yards per 90 compared to 165.8).
Quite simply, Zouma is doing less, and that will partly because Chelsea have greater control in games than they did last term. But it’s also because Silva is the man tasked with progressing attacks and stepping out from the backline to halt opponents.
Zouma is in the team to complement the Brazilian and he is doing that superbly.
He is a dominating presence when the ball is in the air: only two Premier League centre-backs, Joachim Andersen and Harry Maguire, can better Zouma’s percentage of aerial duels won (80.8%).
That has extended to the opposition area, too. Zouma has four goals from corners this season, no other centre-back in Europe’s top five divisions can match that total.
Zouma also remains quick across the ground, able to sweep up if Chelsea’s high line is exposed. He can still be caught out positionally on occasion – as Patrick Bamford’s goal demonstrated – and have the odd lapse in concentration, but these mistakes are being ironed out.
It was always going to be near-impossible for Zouma to live up to the praise dished out in 2015, and his Chelsea story has come with more than one painful twist. But he’s now one of the most important players in the Blues side, and that’s all Mourinho would’ve wanted.