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Zouma comes of age


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Chelsea did what they had to in yesterday's 1-1 draw with Manchester City - and man of the match Kurt Zouma was at the heart of everything good from a Blues perspective.

The young Frenchman, a £12 million signing late in the transfer window of January 2014, has earned rave reviews for his exceptional performances in both the draw yesterday evening and Tuesday's Capital One Cup victory over Liverpool.

For those who are not followers of French football, such an extravagant transfer fee for a 20 year old may have, at one point, seemed extravagant - but after usurping the experienced Gary Cahill and putting in a series of creditable performances that bely his tender years, Zouma is firmly establishing himself as a fans' favourite at Stamford Bridge.

A young man whose middle name is Happy will be no less than delighted with the visible progress he has made since his début in a 2-1 League Cup defeat of Bolton earlier in the season.

Don't let Zouma's size fool you. This man mountain is almost impossibly strong and possesses an incredible leap even from standing positions. His aerial hang time defies gravity. But he is also a technically adept and intelligent young footballer who compliments club captain John Terry with his proactive and aggressive style of defending.

Whilst Terry, not particularly blessed with pace, is the ultimate "sweeper" centre half, relying on his reading of the game and instinctive intuition to snuff out danger, Zouma is a ravenous bloodhound of a defender who chases down the opposition with unrelenting fury.

The Frenchman - unlike many young defenders who are too naive in their approach - demonstrated maturity in the way he dealt with a serious of threatening Manchester City attacks yesterday. The most tremendous example is his wonderfully-timed and -executed sliding tackle to deny the ever-dangerous Sergio Aguero a shot on goal in the first half.

Rather than launching himself into tackles overzealously, Zouma has an aura of control about himself that even far more experienced defenders lack.

And for a big unit - a massive 85KG of pure muscle - Zouma can shift as well. He is hardly a hulking behemoth; in fact he has a burst of pace that was visible when he matched speed king Raheem Sterling stride for stride to make up his own misjudgement in Tuesday's semi final second leg against Liverpool.

Zouma is still very young and has time on his side to continue his visible improvement under José Mourinho, but he is already a very promising prospect. He compliments the likes of John Terry and Gary Cahill through his more aggressive and proactive style of defending. Also good in possession, he often channels his inner Marcel Desailly by striding out come from the defence and driving forwards with the ball.

In - albeit temporarily - displacing Cahill, who has looked shaky at best for the large part this season, Zouma has broken into the Blues first team sooner than most people may have anticipated. After incredibly mature performances against two of the best club sides in English football, the former St Etienne man has shown he is more than ready for the step up from squad player to first team stalwart.

Cahill, in being a wonderful servant to Chelsea, has put his body on the line countless times for the Blues cause, but his flaws as a footballer have been exposed by Mourinho choosing to utilise a higher defensive block this season. In his quest for a more attacking style, José has had to sacrifice some of his defensive solidarity and has instructed his rearguard to play a higher line by a clear 10-15 yards.

Though that sounds negligible, it means that there is more pressure on the Blues' back four to step out and make that first pass to initiate attacks.

For Cahill, this is problematic. Whilst Terry is more than competent at threading balls into the feet of Cesc Fabregas, Eden Hazard et al., Cahill regularly panics in possession and more often than not just hoofs the ball upfield, surrendering the ball to Chelsea's opponents.

Zouma is a more deliberate footballer in possession, capable of making incisive passes into feet. Surprisingly so for someone of his age, he is not fazed when under pressure from the opposition, and whilst a fair number of his passes may not come off, he is confident enough to try and play percentage football - in the hope that one of those brisk balls into feet can instigate a Chelsea attack.

And the way the young French constantly hounds the opposition makes him the perfect defensive foil for Terry, who, at 34, perhaps lacks that yard of pace necessary to close down an opponent. Most managers are keen for their centre-backs to take up different roles in a back four - "one hold, one attack" is a rule of thumb in the Mourinho school of thought, and whilst Cahill is more likely to back off and hope for defensive support to defend in a two-on-one situation, Zouma is happy to press and harry in his overtly more proactive style.

Whilst further defensive reinforcements look sure to arrive next summer, with Real Madrid's Raphael Varane a touted target, Zouma has certainly seized upon his chances this season and has been more than impressive in doing so.

A star in the making has been discovered.

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