If Chelsea fail to win the Premier League this season, which is unlikely, 2014/15 may ultimately come to be remembered because of the rise of Kurt Zouma.
Kurt Happy Zouma (yes, Happy is his middle name) signed from Saint-Etienne in January 2014 for a hefty £12million, aged just 19, heading straight back to France for the remainder of the 13/14 season.
He returned to England over the summer, but his time at Chelsea up until a couple of months ago was relatively unnoticeable – in fact, you’d have been forgiven for thinking that he had no long term future at the club, given both Jose Mourinho and the club’s player development track records in the past decade.
That was until he showed no real vulnerabilities when he started his first full league 90 minutes against Newcastle on January 10. And stirring performances against Liverpool, Manchester City and Everton have now solidified his breakthrough and challenged the John Terry-Gary Cahill partnership that seemed so dependable.
In many ways, such should be celebrated. At long last, Chelsea are actually nurturing, risking, and developing a young talent, something that shockingly has not really been done since Terry came through over a decade ago. The same can be said of Mourinho whose nomadic tendencies to flirt from super-club to super-club have meant he’s never really had a footballing protégée of his own.
Zouma looks as if he could finally fit that unattended bill. A defender for one, he appears physical, intelligent, and charismatic. The Observer last year took note of his ‘leadership qualities’, and media pundits have generally drawn comparisons to Marcel Desailly – unselfish and imposing – a textbook Mourinho player if ever there was one.
That, however, rubs salt in the wound of an understated English predicament regarding Roy Hodgson’s defence. This is the first of it’s kind for a significant period of time – rewind through the last couple of decades and England have always had a dependable set of central defenders; Rio Ferdinand, John Terry, Sol Campbell, Tony Adams.
It may be naive to say that Cahill is England’s ‘linchpin’, but how many reliable, experienced and solid central defenders are currently available? Phil Jagielka is 32 and by all accounts has had a mediocre season with Everton. The marginalised Joleon Lescott is not what he once was. Ryan Shawcross has never really made a serious claim for contention. Chris Smalling and Phil Jones continue to frustrate at United.
Seemingly, Cahill at the age of 29 is England’s most reliable defensive asset. Zouma’s projected rise throws his prospects of regular domestic football out of the window, which asks of Hodgson if he can legitimately pick one of his most dependable players.
There is the hope that any team with mediocre defenders can still keep clean sheets by being a resistant, cohesive and well organised unit. But when you think of England’s other defensive midfielders in front of that backline, the picture- purely through a defensive lens – isn’t much brighter.
Jack Wilshere’s been England’s ‘deep lying playmaker’ in recent times against haphazard opposition, and is naturally an attacking player. You wouldn’t have confidence in him to provide a midfield screen against a top class international side. James Milner rarely gets a central run out at Man City. Jack Rodwell – a genuine defensive player – has seen his career veer out of the international spotlight. Michael Carrick’s never been appreciated at international level and is struggling with ongoing injuries. Gareth Barry is 34.
Apparently, all of England’s bright hopes, be it Raheem Sterling, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Jordan Ibe, or Harry Kane, are all attacking players.
The one saving grace in the Zouma-England debacle? It isn’t a major-footballing tournament year, meaning Hodgson has a good 15 months or so to explore the avenues of a new dependable defensive unit. John Stones and Calum Chambers look genuinely encouraging for the time being and could actually make an impact in years to come.
But overall, there does seem to be a lack of quality in the defensive department on the international scene. Cahill’s omission via Zouma’s rise accentuates that crisis further, making Hodgson’s next long-term goal to build from the back.