It’s incredible the difference one man can make to a football club. And yet, Stoke fans shouldn’t have been all that surprised that Paul Lambert’s first game in charge provided a much-needed lift in performance – and more crucially, a first clean sheet since October. After all, this Potters side contains far greater quality than their current league position suggests, and far greater ability at the back than their incredible goals conceded tally, 50 in 24 games, alludes to.
And with few players does that ring truer than Kurt Zouma. This is, after all, the powerful centre-back who was part of Chelsea’s Premier League title-winning 2014/15 season at the age of 20 and until suffering a serious long-term injury, he was regarded as one of the best young defenders in Europe. Some have criticised the Frenchman at times this season but in truth, Stoke’s abundant lack of organisation under Mark Hughes has simply given him too much to do for the majority of the campaign.
Lambert made no secret that his immediate priority is to improve Stoke defensively and in a team with far better structure, albeit facing a Huddersfield side in freefall, Zouma – who Transfermarkt value at £13.5million – was amongst those who stood out most; weighing in with three tackles, two interceptions, four clearances and a whopping 13 successful aerial duels. He also had the second-most touches of the ball of any Stoke player on Saturday, 63, after Erik Pieters.
Now a place above the relegation zone, retaining that resolute edge at the back will be crucial to Stoke’s revival under Lambert, and Zouma has already shown why he’ll be a pivotal part of that.