Kurt Zouma has played more minutes over the last 14 games than any other Chelsea player, even Kepa Arrizabalaga. Any drop in his performance could be a side effect of how much Frank Lampard depends on him.
Southampton’s opening goal on Boxing Day was a true team goal. Emerson misread (or just didn’t read at all) the pressure closing in on Callum Hudson-Odoi as Hudson-Odoi received the pass from Emerson, so the Brazilian was overlapping Hudson-Odoi instead of offering himself as a safety outlet as two Southampton players sandwiched Hudson-Odoi. Emile Hojbjerg ran onto the loose ball, and Jorginho stood safely off him, allowing Hojbjerg to thread a pass to Michael Obafemi. Fikayo Tomori only lazily reached a leg towards that pass, which let Obafemi pick it up in space and run straight at Kurt Zouma. Zouma had his body angle and positioning all wrong, ultimately allowing Obafemi to cut inside at curl the shot over and past Kepa Arrizabalaga.
That’s over half the Chelsea players on the pitch having a hand in going down 1-0. But since Kurt Zouma was the last defender, many fans and pundits gave him the majority or entirety of the blame for the goal. Zouma’s error also reinforced the perception that has performance has been declining over recent games, raising questions about why Frank Lampard trusts him as much as he does.
Kurt Zouma has the second-most minutes at Chelsea FC through 28 games in all competitions this season. Zouma’s playing time is much closer to team leader Kepa Arrizabalaga’s than to Cesar Azpilicueta’s third-most.
Over the last 14 games – the second half of the first half of the season, so to speak – Zouma has more minutes than anyone, even the goalkeeper. Arrizabalaga, unlike Zouma, was on the bench in the Carabao Cup loss against Manchester United.
Zouma is the only outfield player to be among Frank Lampard’s most-used players in each quarter of the season to date. Arrizabalaga, Azpilicueta, Jorginho, Zouma and Mount led the team in minutes during the first 14 games. In the second block it’s been Zouma, Arrizabalaga, Mateo Kovacic, Willian and Christian Pulisic.
What’s remarkable is that the second quarter of the season has seen the return of Antonio Rudiger to the lineup. But rather than use Rudiger to spread out the defensive responsibilities among more players, Fikayo Tomori has received all the relief Rudiger provides, and Zouma has had none.
Lampard’s recent dalliances with the 3-4-3 have eliminated opportunities for centreback rotation, but he has sufficient options in a four- or three-man defence to not have to play any one player in every game. Andreas Christensen has played only twice in December. Cesar Azpilicueta is an option for centreback when Reece James is available, especially now that we know Lampard will trust Marcos Alonso as a wingback. And Marc Guehi is still floating around somewhere as the distant wildcard possibility.
As my colleague Vishnu wrote yesterday, Frank Lampard has sufficient players available. It’s strictly on him if the few he uses are not performing up to standards, especially if any drop in their performances can be traced back to fatigue.
Some players are more susceptible to short-term fatigue caused by a high density of playing minutes than long-term fatigue over the course of the season. Marcos Alonso comes to mind as someone who can maintain a high level of play for a long time as long as he has intermittent days off. Once he goes on a long run of consecutive games, his performance seems to slide.
Kurt Zouma could be in that category. He did not have any issues during his last two seasons in the Premier League at Everton and Stoke City, and is on track for roughly the same amount or slightly more league minutes than at those teams – a natural and reasonable progression. But with Chelsea he has the extra games and reduced recovery periods that come with the Champions League.
He has shown he can handle 3,000 minutes a season, as he did each of the last two, and that could point towards his being able to handle 4,000 minutes this season. The breaking point may be not what he can space out between August and May, but how much is jammed in between August and January.
Frank Lampard asks a lot of his trusted centrebacks. Last season at Derby County, Richard Keogh played 5,232 minutes and Fikayo Tomori played 4,901 minutes. The next most-used player had 300 fewer than Tomori.
Perhaps Lampard recognizes how hard he pushed Tomori last season and does not want to do that to him again. Maybe he saw the effects it had on Tomori towards the end of the season or he just be concerned about the long-term effects it could have on a player in his early 20’s.
If that’s the case, though, Lampard is just shifting the burden from Tomori to Zouma rather than doing something that can prevent any one or two players from carrying that much load.
Lampard and his staff must be careful and patient with Antonio Rudiger’s return, but that does not mean Rudiger – to say nothing of Andreas Christensen – cannot occasionally fill in for Zouma.