Going into the new Premier League season, Chelsea boss Maurizio Sarri had been keen on bringing in a new central defender to Stamford Bridge.
A move for the Italian’s former pupil at Empoli, Daniele Rugani, had been lined up but, like the Blues’ pursuit of Alex Sandro the summer before, a deal failed to materialise with Juventus being resilient as ever (via Evening Standard).
Nevertheless, Chelsea still approached the campaign with good central defensive options including Kurt Zouma and Antonio Rudiger.
But while Rudiger has managed to cement a place in Sarri’s starting XI, Zouma has again found himself going out on loan — this time to Everton — following a temporary spell with Stoke City last term.
The Frenchman is slowly being integrated into Everton’s starting XI by Marco Silva but, in the couple of appearances he has made thus far, he has looked solid.
So, with that in mind, was Sarri right to make Rudiger one of his starting centre-backs ahead of Zouma?
Prior to the serious knee injury he picked up in a 1-1 draw against Manchester United back in 2016, Zouma had established himself as Chelsea’s first-choice central defender.
However, the 23-year-old failed to find passage back into the starting XI once returning to full fitness and has since spent a season out on loan at the bet365 Stadium with Stoke.
A large part of Zouma’s game is built on pace and the ability to make recovery tackles but, following his injury, those aspects have been severely affected.
The France international, though, remains dominant in the air. Aerially, he might just be the best in the Premier League, and his addition to Everton will no doubt improve their backline which had its struggles last term.
Where Zouma has always been lacking, on the other hand, is his ball-playing capabilities at the first sight of danger.
While a lot of coaches and pundits would probably praise Zouma for hoofing the ball into row Z when under pressure, Sarri’s desire for his team to play out of practically every situation would have presented problems the former Saint-Etienne man.
Overall, though, Zouma is still a quality defender, especially when it comes to aerial duels.
TT Grade: B+
Rudiger shares a lot of similarities with Zouma: speed, likes to go to ground and strong in the air.
Where the two differ, however, is what they can do on the ball — which is the reason why Rudiger is slowly becoming such an integral figure in this Chelsea squad, in contrast to Zouma.
As well as being able to play out of defence when under pressure, Rudiger has shown he is also capable of playing penetrating passes through the lines, something that could be pivotal for the Blues this season.
In games against Huddersfield, Newcastle and Bournemouth, Sarri’s men have had to deal with the opposition playing with two banks of four and, albeit they found a way on each occasion, they had their difficulties in breaking the trio down.
Rudiger, though, was often the one to try encourage his side to play a more vertical game in very tricky circumstances by playing cross-field passes and trying to get the ball into the likes of Eden Hazard and Alvaro Morata as often as possible.
1v1, Rudiger is not as solid as Zouma but, when looking at who is closer to being the more complete modern day defender, the former is easily the victor.
TT Grade: A-
Before his injury, Zouma was well on his way to becoming a word-class defender. If it were not for that, he could have been Chelsea’s first-choice centre-half right now while Rudiger might have not even been bought.
His ball-playing skills means that the above would not have been a certainty but in terms of just defending, on his day, Zouma looked as defensively solid as the likes of Atletico Madrid’s Diego Godin and Juventus captain Giorgio Chiellini — world-class defenders, who are not as technically gifted compared to some of their counterparts.
But the reality is that injury did happen and Zouma has regressed as a result of it. Therefore, Rudiger would have to be the central defender most managers — like Sarri — would opt for in this moment of time.