Kurt Zouma is a bit of an enigma, isn’t he? He’s not a world class defender, but most Premier League teams would take him in a heartbeat.
Tottenham are now said to be interested in securing the Frenchman’s services, along with former club Everton, and it presents something of a crossroads for Zouma, as a move to the former would see him reunite with his old manager José Mourinho, a known admirer.
So with funds needed to bring in a quality left back, do Chelsea stick or twist with Zouma? Well, a considered look at his displays this season gives you a clear answer. Stick.
Zouma’s route to the Chelsea first team hasn’t been smooth sailing. Ironically signed under Mourinho’s management from St Etienne in January 2014 aged just 19, he featured sporadically during the 2014/15 season and was a constant first team presence under both Mourinho and caretaker boss Guss Hiddink the following campaign, and began to flourish.
That bright start was cruelly ended by a serious knee injury, which left him on the sidelines for six months. Subsequent loan spells at Stoke and Everton aided his comeback and he returned to Stamford Bridge last summer, signalling his intent to fight for a starting place once more.
And it has largely gone pretty well for him this campaign. Arguably the most successful period of the season for the Blues came when Zouma partnered talented youngster Fikayo Tomori at the back for nine games in the lead up to Christmas; they kept seriously attacking units at bay, most notably Ajax in a narrow 1-0 away win in the Champions League.
Usually viewed as a physically imposing old school defender, it is actually Zouma’s distribution and long balls that have improved drastically under Lampard this season, with an impressive 87% passing accuracy a testament to his hard work in adapting his game to suit the style of his new boss.
Lampard was certainly pleased with the player’s development when asked earlier this year.
He said, as quoted by Chelsea’s website: “What Kurt has done, which is not easy, is to go out on loan and people then start to consider you something different from a Chelsea player. I never did. I told him very early in pre-season that he was part of my plans here and I believe in his qualities.
“I try to give him that confidence and he has got better and better as the season goes on. He is a bit of a leader in the group, strong physically to look at but a quality player.”
Another element that Lampard touched on is another key factor in why Zouma should remain with the side. Chelsea’s squad is one of the youngest in the league and Zouma, at 25, is not a prospect any more. The leadership qualities he possesses have been utilised to great effect this season, with his strong mentoring of Tomori in that aforementioned winning spell a good example.
The Frenchman’s offensive skills and adeptness in the air also bring versatility to the backline and allows Lampard to comfortably play three at the back. Zouma was prominent in Chelsea’s win at Tottenham earlier this season, flourishing in the 2-0 victory as part of a three-man defence.
It must be said that the return of Antonio Rudiger from injury did slightly put the brakes on Zouma’s season, but the way he fought back into the manager’s plans with excellent dominant displays against Liverpool in the FA Cup and in the 4-0 thrashing of Everton – their last game before lockdown – showed great character and a desire to fight for his spot, something Lampard actively encourages and appreciates.
Some Chelsea fans may not have a strong opinion on whether Zouma should stay or go. He is, after all, not a loyal stalwart of many seasons, nor an emerging academy graduate. But a sense of perspective would tell you that a serious injury set a talented player back almost a year of his career and, early on this season, it did show.
Despite some initial struggles, however, he adapted, improved the areas of his game that required attention and has thrived on the responsibility bestowed upon him.
He should now be given a chance to continue his improving form and confidence under a young and personable manager, in amongst a supportive, exciting squad. With the likes of Toby Alderweireld and Davinson Sánchez already fixtures in the Spurs set-up, there’s no guarantee he would play any more regularly at Tottenham than he does currently at Stamford Bridge.
After all, Mourinho used him sparingly when he was in the dugout there. And with Chelsea in prime position to secure European football again for next season and Euro 2020 (or 2021) ambitions clearly in his sights, Zouma would do well to keep his stock rising rather than become the forgotten man once more.