When Chelsea fought off many of Europe’s top clubs to secure the services of up and coming centre back Kurt Zouma from French club Saint Etienne for 12 million in January of this year, manager Jose Mourinho must have been congratulating himself. His club had just purchased a player who, earlier this year, was named by The Guardian as one of the ten most promising players in Europe; a defensive colossus who towers over most grown men. While the Frenchman was loaned back to Saint Etienne for the remainder of the 2013/14 season, he has now linked up with the Chelsea squad during pre-season to begin his fight for a first team place. Breaking up the defensive partnership of club captain Terry and Gary Cahill will be no easy feat, given how impressive and in sync they were last campaign, but at 19 years old Zouma possesses the defensive and physical qualities (and time is on his side) to become the natural heir to Terry’s spot, and dominate the Chelsea defence for a long period of time.
Zouma had been in the Saint Etienne first team since he was 17 and made 24 appearances last season, a testament to his reliability at the centre of defence. At 6’2”, Zouma has tremendous physical attributes: a strong upper body, incredible leaping ability (at times last season he was unbeatable in the air) and unlimited stamina. The 19 year old won 77.1% of headers he contested last season, considerably more than both Terry (65%) and Cahill (70%), which shows that his real strength lies in anticipating and then clearing potential attacks. While not being particularly quick this combination of height, mobility and power make him instantly suited to the physicality of the Premier League, not only because he can impose his physical strength to break down attacks with relative ease, but also because he is capable of slowing the game down and dictating play.
Like Chelsea’s back two, the France under-21 international likes to play from a deep defensive line to avoid the chance of the back four being exposed and minimising the probability of any of the defence being caught out of position. As an understudy to Terry, Zouma will have the best education on how to improve this side of his game and become an all-round defender. Clearly then, Zouma is in great company to become a world-class centre back in the mould of Chelsea’s long-serving leader. The young defender has also shown exceptional leadership qualities in his relatively short career, organising the Saint Etienne back four much in the same manner as Terry for Chelsea over the years. Such attributes on his young shoulders make him the perfect long-term replacement for ex-England captain Terry.
The Saint Etienne youth graduate is still a raw talent however, not quite the finished product like Terry, and prone to many mistakes; on some occasions last season he failed to close down attacks which led to goal-scoring opportunities for the opposition as well as goals. This can perhaps be pinned on his age (and naiveté perhaps) but as he gets older and more experienced, this may not be as much of a problem. Having physical prowess must be complimented by positional awareness and the latter was lacking at times last campaign but his potential is definitely still intact.
He also showed his overzealous nature at Saint Etienne when he forcibly tackled Sochaux forward Thomas Guerbert, leaving him with a broken leg and dislocated ankle. Zouma was sent off and later banned for 10 games as a result. Consequently his form suffered and when his ban ended he had become the club’s third choice centre back, hindering him from performing at his best and improving. But he will have learned to show restraint when attempting to take the ball and with Jose Mourinho’s sometimes ultra-defensive approach (or parking two buses as it were) he will have installed in the young Frenchman the discipline to avoid such punishment.
It is highly unlikely that Zouma will force his way into the Chelsea first team right away; the Terry-Cahill partnership is too established and strong to allow for his introduction. But what he represents is a stride towards the future and his impressive physical qualities will make him a Chelsea star for years to come. Taking Terry’s spot would represent the first goal towards this aim and Zouma is more than capable of doing so.