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Denis Zakaria’s enormity is critical to Chelsea

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Roar Rookie
7th January, 2023

Football, like life, is dynamic, constantly locked in a state of evolution, and development. Standard practices become obsolete inside 18 months, morphed into tactics, systems, or beliefs more fluid, complex, and potent.

The 4-4-2 became the 4-3-3 or the 4-2-3-1, pressing became constant before counter-pressing’s birth. Total football took over the world before catenaccio became its antidote.

Similarly, where before defensive midfielders were a managerial afterthought, barely a foundational tool of most teams, they now find themselves reborn into a vital organ in any high-functioning football side.

This shift became evident during the 2010s, arguably the decade of the defensive midfielders. Its first major match – South Africa’s World Cup final – pitted opposing proponents of the same art against each other.

Spain paired the graceful Sergio Busquets and Xabi Alonso together, composers of beautiful possession knitting sides together with their subtlety, against warriors Nigel de Jong and Mark van Bommel, purveyors of the dark arts unafraid of throwing legs and elbows into challenges.

It is no wonder then that both Dutchmen found themselves booked inside half an hour in Johannesburg and finished the match with six fouls produced between them.

Similarly, the first major encounter from Earth’s newest decade – 2021’s Champions League Final between Manchester City and Chelsea – found itself defined by the absence of a defensive midfielder as Pep Guardiola scarified the security of Rodri or Fernandinho for the control of Ilkay Gundogan, who won two duels but was largely obsolete defensively.

On the other side of the pendulum, Thomas Tuchel stuck N’Golo Kante in the centre of the park to nullify City’s commanding midfield. The Frenchman walked off the park with a winners medal having won seven of eight duels, made three tackles, one interception, and two clearances.

Thomas Tuchel

(Photo by ANNE-CHRISTINE POUJOULAT/AFP via Getty Images)

Even the naked eye can see a holding midfielders’ vitality to sides across club and international football.

For this reason, Denis Zakaria’s arrival in Chelsea’s starting 11 is undoubtedly necessary for the London club. After 146 appearances for Borussia Monchengladbach and a further 15 in Italy with Juventus the 26-year-old Swiss international traded Turin for London in the summer on loan with a purchasing option.

A man who was affectionately dubbed an octopus by former adoring German fans, Zakaria’s Chelsea life has experienced a stunted beginning with injuries, a managerial sacking, and a World Cup resulting in his first Premier League start occurring in the club’s 2-0 victory over Bournemouth at the end of December.

It was a welcome sign for Chelsea fans succumbed to Jorginho and Mateo Kovacic operating unnaturally as defensive midfielders in Kante’s absence, given the Italian and Croatian’s strengths lying outside those which define a world-class holding midfielder.

With the Frenchman’s age and extensive injury history, the Cobham faithful can rejoice in the presence of an additional ball-winner in their ranks who’s equally capable of driving the ball beyond the first line of opposition defenders to manufacture space and time for his teammates.


A primary exemplification of the in-possession qualities Zakaria possesses occurred in the 88th minutes of the Manchester City loss, his third Premier League start under Graham Potter and an affair which best highlighted the talents he offers.

Having received the ball from Kovacic 30 yards from his own goal under pressure from a hunting pack comprising of Kevin De Bruyne, Ilkay Gundogan, and Kalvin Phillips pursuing him intently, within a space no larger than a telephone box the Swiss nudges the ball beyond the German, drags it passed De Bruyne and fires a ball wide-left to Carney Chukwuemeka, presented with an ocean of space to attack into.

The 30-second period was one of many instances where Zakaria highlighted his possessional proficiency in a complete performance which undoubtedly represents his best in the blue shirt.

Post-match, Potter praised the 45-time Swiss international’s presence, stating: “I thought he was really good. Defensively he covered such ground, won the ball back, gave everything in terms of his duels. Was brave with the ball, found solutions, progressed the ball. He was a positive of the evening.”

Outside Raheem Sterling who played two minutes through injury, no Chelsea players completed more of their passes than Zakaria (92.6 per cent), nor completed more dribbles. Defensively, he won four from eight duels while making one each for interceptions, clearances, and tackles.

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Given Kante’s recent injury history, a performance like the one dished out against the reigning champions is a breath of fresh air for Chelsea fans. While Zakaria may not receive the starting berth upon the World Cup winner’s return, he waits in the wings to deputise should another injury come his way and represents as close of a like-to-like replacement for the former Leicester man as Potter possesses.

Furthermore, his ability in possession means the Swiss international represents an option to partner Kante upon his return, potentially against stronger opposition where two ball-winners become necessary for success, without costing the Blues a great deal in terms of ball progression via a pass or dribble.

When considering the importance of Casemiro in Manchester United’s current resurgence, or that of Kante and Fabinho when they joined their respective clubs, it is hard to understate the importance of a defensive midfielder for success and should Denis Zakaria remain at the level he showcased against Manchester City, Chelsea have landed themselves a highly capable No.6 who could anchor their side for years and unlock the creative forces around him.