In the whirlwind start to the 2019/20 season, fans and pundits have debated and dissected this Chelsea squad to death. With many people’s pre-season predictions of players being shot out of the water. The rise of Fikayo Tomori, Tammy Abraham leading the line and Mateo Kovacic’s drastic improvement all being apt examples of this. One player that certainly has surprised everyone from pre-season to the present day is Kurt Zouma.
In pre-season, Chelsea manager Frank Lampard had four centre back options in his squad. He had Tomori who was the young, talented defender he brought back from his loan spell at Derby but ultimately unproven at the top level. Andreas Christensen has always had to fight to be given a chance in this Chelsea team; however he was someone that Lampard favoured early on. That left the the man who was generally perceived as the best centre back in Antonio Rudiger. This left Zouma coming into a squad with firstly a new manager and the starting centre backs from the year before both unavailable for the start of the season (Rudiger with his injury and David Luiz sold to Arsenal)
His loan spell at Everton had seen him rediscover his form that basically brought him back into the fray in terms of playing for a top club once again. Recovering from the horrible ACL injury sustained in the 2015/16 season that threatened to seriously derail his career, he has come a long way. Four years on, he is back in the fold at a top club and back in the national side. A remarkable achievement in itself. However, the feeling was that he had lost what made him so good before his injury and that he was perhaps not good enough to be at Chelsea and certainly not good enough to be starting week in, week out.
Early Season Impressions
Beginning the season at the heart of the Chelsea defence, the long-term injury to Rudiger and Lampard not trusting Tomori in the early part of the season saw him be a regular starter. In the away game to Manchester United, he was criticised as was the whole Chelsea team, for being naïve, reckless and not sensing danger as a defender should. Chelsea of course lost by four goals to nil. But as Chelsea dominated the first half, he was the man to give away a penalty just before half time that really changed the game. A needless lunge on Antony Martial seemed to prove all the doubters and critics right that he was a ‘reckless’ defender. Then, Chelsea conceded three in the second half to really drive home that point.
The next test was in the Super Cup against European Champions Liverpool. Facing one of the world’s most potent attacks was another big test for the Frenchman. He began the game nervously, looking edgy and anxious on the ball. Again, he was at fault for the second goal, playing Roberto Firmino onside before he crossed low to Saido Mane who made it two goals to one at that time. But, generally throughout the match he began to show signs that he could rise to this level.
Becoming a First Team Regular
After a nervy start in this Chelsea team, he has featured 17 times this season and formed a formidable partnership with Tomori. For me, he has really found a way to play to his strengths as a defender. He isn’t gifted technically on the ball, despite that Messi-like run against Ajax in the Champions League. His first touch and his passing range are very basic and limited but what he lacks in technical ability, he makes up for in physicality.
It has given us our physically strongest centre back since Gary Cahill was a regular starter and before that John Terry. The modern centre back build of Tomori and Rudiger is definitely different and whilst there isn’t a ‘right’ height to be, having someone of Zouma’s height and aggression gives us that extra edge at centre back to rival the likes of Virgil Van Dijk, Joel Matip and Aymeric Laporte.
Himself and Tomori complement each other perfectly with Zouma stronger in the air whilst Tomori is better in terms of ground duels. Going forward, the return of Rudiger will bring about competition for places, with Christensen also throwing his hat into the ring. However, one thing is for certain, he has proven to himself and everyone that he is of this level and seems to be getting better game by game which can only be good for the team.