Chelsea’s decision to loan out Kurt Zouma during the summer certainly raised some eyebrows. The France international struggled to replicate his prior form after a lengthy injury layoff but it wasn’t long ago he was being revered as one of the best young defenders in Europe, let alone the Premier League.
Why, for example, spend so much on Antonio Rudiger when there’s such a promising youngster, already experienced at first-team level and well integrated into the Chelsea squad, at Antonio Conte’s disposal? Well, Zouma’s Man of the Match performance against Watford on Saturday highlighted exactly what his game still lacks to become a Blues great under the Italian.
Defensively, Zouma produced nothing short of an incredible display; a return of four tackles, 14 clearances and eight clearances speaks for itself, playing a pivotal role in Stoke City claiming a clean sheet at Vicarage Road – something only Brighton and Manchester City have also managed this season.
But Conte’s three-man defensive setup requires quality on the ball, especially in the wide centre-back roles, and that’s where Zouma continues to struggle. Of course, not too much can be read into a performance that saw Stoke take less than 30% possession en route to a 1-0 win. But even so, the 23-year-old’s passing accuracy was just 27%.
To put that into context, it was the worst rate of any player on the pitch, ranking even lower than goalkeeper Jack Butland. During his parent club’s 1-0 win over Bournemouth, on the other hand, centre-backs Cesar Azpilicueta, David Luiz and the aforementioned Rudiger averaged 94% passing accuracy between them. Even fellow Potters centre-backs Ryan Shawcross and Kevin Wimmer both had a passing accuracy above 65% against the Hornets.
Of course, we’re talking about two very different kinds of away performance with completely polarised dynamics; Stoke entered Saturday as the underdogs, whereas Chelsea were always expected to see plenty of the ball against the Cherries. But it nonetheless epitomised the only aspect still missing from Zouma’s game – the consistency and quality to be productive on the ball.
While the Frenchman is a fantastic defender, limited quality in possession will stop him from reaching his full potential in Conte’s system. More than anything else, that’s what Zouma must improve upon before he returns to Stamford Bridge next summer.