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Why is Zouma under-appreciated by our fans?

Photo Edit - @Miz9Rahman If you were to ask a large group of Chelsea fans who their favourite centre-back currently is, it’s very likely tha...


Photo Edit - @Miz9Rahman

If you were to ask a large group of Chelsea fans who their favourite centre-back currently is, it’s very likely that you would get a wide variety of responses. Some prefer Antonio Rudiger for his vocal character and leadership skills, others prefer Fikayo Tomori for his lightning pace and incredibly high potential, and others may even prefer Andreas Christensen for his all-round game and impressive recent performances. 

But the response you are probably very unlikely to hear is Kurt Zouma. The Frenchman is yet to make a massive impact at Chelsea since joining over 6 years ago and has struggled to win over the fans, largely because I think many of them have either forgotten how good he was when he first started playing regularly under Mourinho or are still resentful of the way he conceded that penalty against Manchester United which opened the scoring in Chelsea’s humiliating 4-0 defeat in the first game of the season.

Zouma epitomises Chelsea naivety in 4/10 display vs. Man United
Zouma’s clumsy challenge on Marcus Rashford in Chelsea’s 4-0 defeat

But during his time on loan and even at times this season, I believe Zouma has put in some solid performances that have completely gone under the radar and haven’t received enough appreciation, so in this article, I hope to explain to you why I think he has been massively overlooked by our own fanbase.

His improvement and experience

After signing for Chelsea for £13m in January 2014 and being loaned back to Saint-Etienne for the remainder of the season, 19-year-old Zouma managed to break into the first-team in 14/15 under Mourinho. In his first season he made 15 appearances and put in some impressive performances, before making another 23 appearances the following season. He was initially very popular with the fans due to his immense strength and ability to make lunging slide tackles while running at full speed, as shown in the 2 videos below.
 

In the latter half of the 2015/16 season though, he suffered a horrific knee ligament injury against Manchester United when he landed awkwardly after making a clearance. He missed the remainder of that campaign plus the majority of the next, and only returned in time to get 246 minutes of Premier League football in Conte’s title-winning season the following year. In order to ease him back into first-team football, he spent the following 2 years on loan at Stoke and Everton where he made 34 and 32 appearances respectively after managing to hold down a place in both of their backlines, demonstrating that his fitness and performance levels were back to their peak. He clearly won over the support of Evertonians, who were distraught after it became apparent that he would not be allowed to move to Merseyside permanently and managed to get “Free Zouma” trending on Twitter last summer in an attempt to win him over.

Reflecting on his time on loan at Everton, Zouma said in July that his experiences have helped him to improve his all-round defending which will hopefully get him back into the team at Chelsea: “I had a very good season and really enjoyed my time there. I met some good players and worked with a good manager so I feel everything in my game as a defender has improved. I just wanted to play week-in, week-out and by going there, that’s what I did. I improved myself technically and tactically in every aspect. I still have a lot to learn but I’ve done a lot since my injury and I’m very happy with it.”

Not only have his consecutive seasons on loan allowed him to improve different aspects of his game, but they have also provided him with the experience of playing in different systems. As good as he was when he burst onto the scene under Mourinho at such a young age, it still requires a lot of adaptation to go from playing well in a defensive counter-attacking system to being able to play in an offensive system where the defenders are required to keep a high line and play out from the back, and this extra experience should put him in good stead if he wants to be a first-team regular under Frank Lampard.

His commitment and passion

After spending 9 months recovering from a terrible injury, returning for a couple of games the next season but ultimately missing out on being part of a title-winning team, and then spending a year on loan to get himself fit again, it must have been difficult for Zouma when Sarri told him that he was not in his plans for the upcoming 18/19 season, forcing him to go out on loan for a second season. In spite of this though, Zouma has showcased his ability at Everton and has come back determined for a starting place in one of the best teams in England, which just highlights how committed he is to succeed at Chelsea.

If this doesn’t convince you then simply admire the way he reacted after scoring the equalizing goal against Manchester United at Stamford Bridge this season. The goal was later (questionably) ruled out by VAR which is probably why this was celebration hardly talked about, but Zouma made a point of running right up in front of the fans in the Matthew Harding Lower and East Lower (including myself), striking his chest and pumping his arms to rile the home fans up and to get them behind the team as they were about to go and try to win the game.

Chelsea fans fume at VAR AGAIN as Zouma goal ruled out for ...
Zouma (right) celebrating his equalizing goal against Manchester United before it is ruled out by VAR

I’m sure we can all agree that passion for the badge is one particular quality that we want our players to possess, and this was actually one of the points Frank Lampard picked out in his first press conference as Chelsea manager: “I want players, whether you are 18 or 32 years of age, this is your club and you are not just passing through Chelsea into something else. I want people who want to be here. I played at Chelsea with fantastic players, people who came to the club and felt the club. My idea is to work with the best players, to get the best out of them and to be competitive as we can be.”

His stats

Surprisingly, if you break down the defensive stats for all of our centre backs then Zouma comes out by far the best in nearly every category, and even outscores some other leading Premier League centre backs despite having played fewer games than them. 

Compared against Chelsea’s centre backs, Zouma ranks 1st in blocks, 1st in interceptions, 3rd in tackles, 1st in clearances, 1st in headed clearances, 1st in aerial duels won and 1st in forward passing. Although he has made 19 starts compared to 15, 15 and 13 for Tomori, Christensen and Rudiger respectively, in some areas such as interceptions he has nearly double as many as the next best Chelsea defender (42 interceptions compared to 22 for Tomori). Similarly, compared against other Premier League centre backs, he has as many blocks as Liverpool’s Van Dijk and has more interceptions and aerial duels won than both of Leicester’s Soyuncu and Evans who have all played many more games than him.

The only area Zouma really falls behind is fouls - having conceded 26 while Tomori, Christensen and Rudger combined have only conceded 31 - but this is not a major issue when trying to win the ball higher up the pitch. Therefore, the main area where he could improve is his passing seeing as he still ranks behind the likes of Van Dijk and Soyuncu there, but at just 25-years-old I believe he has plenty of time to improve on that.

Conclusion
Based on his performances this season, Zouma has been by far our best centre back. As much as that might not seem like much of an achievement considering we have conceded a shocking 39 goals this season, I don’t think our current defensive problems are down to our centre backs and are probably more down to tactics and the way we defend set-pieces for example. Many Chelsea fans are quick to point the finger at Kepa instead, but statistically, he hasn’t actually been that much worse than last season and the way we defend probably hasn’t helped him with his confidence either.
Therefore, I think we as fans ought to give Zouma little more respect. He certainly has the potential to be a key player for Chelsea and is showing signs of that already. When he’s composed and confident, he is more than capable of bullying opposing players and can also be a serious attacking threat from set-pieces. With more first-team opportunities in the coming seasons and more time for Lampard and his staff to refine their defensive strategies, I have full confidence that Zouma can flourish at Chelsea and cement his place in the back four if he is given the chance to.

Kurt Zouma - Player profile 19/20 | Transfermarkt
Written by - Oliver McCabe
Twitter - @OliverMcCabe_

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