This weekend at the Stade Lille Metropole Christoph Galtier’s Saint-Etienne side emerged with a new number four in the line-up. This was not a new signing making his debut this was a sign of Galtier confidence in the newest teenage sensation making waves in France.
Appearing for the tenth time in Ligue 1 it would be the first time Kurt Zouma had stepped onto the field with his name on the back of his jersey. Since the season began Zouma had been sporting the infamous #33 shirt. The number given to players that haven’t been registered within the squad and usually coming in as part of the youth team. This season it has become evident very quickly that Zouma’s place was in the heart of the St-Etienne defence.
Coach Galtier had previously said they reason Zouma’s name was not on the shirt was for his own protection. The longer Galtier could keep Zouma out of the spotlight the better chance Saint-Etienne have of keeping the defender in the famous green jersey. In his short first team career Zouma has already scored two goals and impressed all in attendance, it seems the cat is truly out of the bag.
Born in Lyon, France Zouma joined the Saint-Etienne youth ranks when he was just 14 spending six years in Vaulx-en-Velin’s youth side. This season he made his senior debut in the Coupe de France match against Bordeaux as his side won 3-1. A league debut against Lorient soon followed; this would not be as successful with Les Verts on the wrong side of a 3-0 defeat.
It took quite a few weeks for Zouma to find his feet in the team. Brought into the back four after a spate of injuries and suspensions, as well as playing as a centre-back he was also asked to cover at right-back. The raw power and pace that he possesses made it very hard for anyone to get past the huge defender.
Growing in confidence after every game, an unfortunate injury to Paulão after only 10 minutes against Nice would give Zouma another chance to impress. A chance he would take it with both hands. Dominant in the air, the home side struggled to find a way past the defence. Then with 10 minutes left Zouma would finish the game off.
Romanian winger Banel Nicolita curled in a cross from the left and the defender threw his giant frame at the ball and powered a diving header past substitute keeper Rául Fernandez. St-Etienne’s second goal, and it would seal the win, and a clean sheet. Standing six feet two inches tall, forwards would soon learn that battling with Zouma is a tough physical challenge.
Keen followers of youth football may recognise the name from this summer’s U17 World Cup in Mexico. Zouma made up an impressive centre-back duo with Auxerre’s Raphael Calvet. With Calvet showing the calm and assured role it was left to Zouma to be the tough tackling physical presence. He would then show he has more to his game by breaking forward from the defence, stretching out those long powerful legs and going on a run reminiscent of Marcel Desailly in his prime. Pushing the game forward and creating chances from the back. It was clear to see this boy was a talented prospect.
This weekend all eyes were on the Stade Lille Metropole to see how LOSC’s new signing Nolan Roux would do on his debut. Roux worked very hard, making some excellent runs down the channel and constantly trying runs in behind the defence, on any other day he would have had more joy but in Kurt Zouma the forward was met with a green brick wall.
On numerous occasions Roux would find himself running through on goal, only for the long legs of Zouma to catch him up and perfectly time his tackle to deny the striker a goal-scoring opportunity. Any ball delivered into the box was usually met with Zouma heading it clear. It was hard to believe this player was only 17 years old.
In the end Lille won the game 3-0 but this was not slight on the performance of the young centre-back.
On the opposite end the presence of the defender was troubling the Lille defence. With the recent poor performances still fresh in the memory, every time St-Etienne won a free kick, the threat of Zouma was prominent. Not just dangerous with his heading ability, but his extraordinary vertical leap makes him a tremendous asset at set-pieces.
So far this season the sale of Carlos Bocanegra and injuries to Jean-Pascal Mignot, Paulão and Sylvain Marchal have given Zouma plenty of opportunities to show what he can bring to this team. Now it would be hard to leave him out of the line-up. Still only 17 it will be important for Christoph Galtier to protect the teenage sensation and not overuse the player. Too much too soon can lead to physical and mental burn-out.
Galtier also might soon have a problem keeping scouts from Europe’s elite clubs showing an interest in Zouma. Already the likes of Manchester United and Manchester City have started scouting the defender. Hopefully for the next few seasons his future will lie in France.
The World Cup in Brazil 2014 might come a little too soon for Zouma. He would still only be 19 come football’s international showpiece. However the European Champions hosted in France in 2016 are a huge possibility. The then 21-year old could form a terrifying partnership with PSG’s Mamadou Sakho and any back-line containing Sakho and Zouma could go on to rule Europe.
Mamadou Sakho’s career could be a model for Zouma to follow. Making his debut at 16 Sakho also made his way through the French youth sides before becoming the captain of PSG at 21-years old.
Saint-Etienne will hope, like Sakho, that Zouma is still gracing the Stade Geoffrey Guichard in five years’ time. If Manchester United or City have anything to do with it, that could be a distant dream for Les Verts.