Analyzing Chelsea’s defensive cover to replace injured Kurt Zouma

Photo credit: AFP.

Photo credit: AFP.

Kurt Zouma suffered an unsettling injury during Chelsea’s Premier League match against Manchester United in last week’s fixture at Stamford Bridge.  His fall was so awkward and his pain so obvious that United’s Juan Mata immediately called for a stoppage of play, frantically signaling to the bench that his opponent needed treatment.

Following the match, the young Frenchman left the stadium headed for an MRI scan and a complete examination by the Chelsea FC medical team.  Their diagnosis wasn’t positive.  Zouma sustained serious damage to the anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee and required surgery as soon as possible.  The injury will see him sidelined until at least August and will surely throw a wrench in Guus Hiddink’s plans for team selection.

Zouma has been a mainstay in the center of the Blues’ defense where he has most often partnered John Terry.  Under Mourinho, he was preferred to Cahill on more than one occasion and an ankle injury to the Englishman further cemented Zouma’s place in the starting eleven.  Even since his return to fitness, Cahill has struggled to regain his place among the starters, but now he’ll be Hiddink’s first choice.

This couldn’t come at a worse time for Chelsea FC, as they head into the business end of the season.  Still, the mood among Hiddink’s men is that the FA Cup and Champions League (which resumes again in a week) are competitions which they can and should try to win.  Hiddink has more than once stated his desire to challenge for both trophies.

He has even dubbed the Blues’ 5th Round FA Cup tie, which comes just five days after next Tuesday’s trip to Paris in the Champions League Round of 16, as the most important match of the tournament.  Said Hiddink, “Manchester City [is] already a final.  City is a huge game and we start the final in the next round.”  But how will he cope without a player who has become a linchpin of the club’s undefeated run since his return to management?

In the January window, Chelsea signed a rising American star from Major League Soccer, New York Red Bulls’ Matt Miazga. The American, Hiddink has asserted, is not a direct replacement for Zouma.  So, who will Chelsea rely upon if Cahill sustains an injury?

Jake Clarke-Salter, the Blues’ center back academy product, has been brought in to fill the void left by the injured Zouma. However, if Miazga is not a direct replacement for the Frenchman, it’s even less likely that Golden Guus has plans to incorporate the young Englishman into his starting team.

Chelsea currently have 34 players loaned out to different clubs around Europe.  Their loan system has been touted by many as a successful means of balancing wage books while developing talented players who otherwise would not be able to feature.  Understandably, some of these players never will step foot on the Stamford Bridge pitch in Chelsea colors.

Just ask Daniel Sturridge or Romelu Lukaku how hard it can be to break into the Blues’ first-team.  Both joined Chelsea with the hopes of becoming iconic forwards for the West Londoners.  Sturridge was purchased from Manchester City in 2009, and spent several seasons on loan at Bolton Wanders before returning to Chelsea to fight for a place in the team. Lukaku was signed in 2011 from Anderlecht and had similar loan spells in the Premier League, impressing at West Bromwich Albion in particular, before returning to Chelsea to see if he could earn a starting spot.  With the specters of Fernando Torres and Didier Drogba still looming over them, however, both left Chelsea for teams in which they could thrive.  Now, when fit, Sturridge and Lukaku start for their respective clubs.

For Lukaku and Sturridge (and Chelsea, for that matter), this was a win.  Each is now their club’s marquee striker, and both have earned the first team minutes they desperately craved but couldn’t find at Chelsea.  

In return, Chelsea received hefty payouts.

Theirs is a story to which players can refer when considering their future at a big club.  It should be especially interesting to young Chelsea players Clarke-Salter and Andreas Christensen.

While Clarke-Salter is no doubt excited to be joining the ranks, albeit as a replacement, he has no guarantees of playing time.  One could argue that he would be better off continuing to feature for Chelsea’s youth teams (which he can do) where he will at least see consistent minutes.

Christensen has been on loan at Borussia Monchengladbach since the start of the season.  Surprisingly, his contract is for a two-year loan with no possibility of recall.  According to Monchengladbach’s sporting director Max Eberl, the Bundesliga side will look to sign Christensen permanently in the summer.

Thorgan Hazard, brother of Chelsea star Eden, made a similar move last February.  Thorgan penned a permanent deal with Monchengladbach while Chelsea are guaranteed the option to buy him back if that’s something they’re interested in doing.

If they were so inclined, Chelsea could make a similar offer to Gladbach.  That way, if Christensen ever became a player they’d consider starting in the first team, he could easily be brought back to West London.  The Blues were heavily criticized for not putting a buy-back clause in Nemanja Matic’s contract in January 2011 before allowing him to sign for Benfica as a makeweight for David Luiz going in the other direction and would be unlikely to repeat such a mistake.

John Terry, who has recently made public that Chelsea have yet to open talks with him about extending his deal, is easily the Blues’ best center back, one from whom Miazga, Christensen, Clarke-Salter or any other central defender they sign, could learn.  It is perplexing, then, that Terry has not been offered an extension.  With Zouma guaranteed to be unavailable until August, it stands to reason that Chelsea want to keep Terry around as long as possible.

It’s no secret that the Blues’ have been closely monitoring Everton’s John Stones, but the Merseysiders have twice refused a deal, going so far as to reject a $47 million offer.  It’s reasonable to assume that Chelsea will once again test Roberto Martinez’s resolve in the summer, but if they don’t get their man, will they be forced into another panic buy, as they were with Papy Djilobodji in the 2015 summer window?  The Senegalese center back recently made a loan move to Werder Bremen until the end of the season after failing to play more than few seconds in Chelsea colors since August.

Many Chelsea fans, myself included, would prefer to promote from within rather than make similar reckless purchases in the market.  Christensen is a player whose name is often on the tongues of the Blues faithful and one who some describe as a future defensive icon.  He may never get a chance to impress if Chelsea decide to seriously pursue players like Raphael Varane, Marquinhos, John Stones, or any other promising young defender.

If Chelsea refuse to offer Terry a contract extension while allowing players like Christensen to leave, they will squander more than world-class talent – they’ll create a hole in defense which they may find impossible to fill.

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