Kurt Zouma reveals how Chelsea boss Antonio Conte prepared him mentally for return from injury
Antonio Conte may not have been able to work on Kurt Zouma’s physical attributes when he first took over at Chelsea, but he was able to start training the central defender’s brain.
It was largely overlooked at the time, but it was symbolic of Conte’s approach that he chose to take Zouma on Chelsea’s pre-season tour of America despite the fact the Frenchman was still injured and had not played since February.
It would not have been at all surprising had Zouma been spared the long distance travel to continue his rehabilitation at Chelsea’s Cobham training ground.
But as part of his efforts to rebuild team spirit and a sense of togetherness, Conte took Zouma to America to show that he was very much part of his long-term plans.
He also knew that while Zouma could not play in the friendly games or train fully with the rest of the group, the 22-year-old could start to learn about the Italian’s approach and his defensive tactics.
Zouma was stood in formation with the rest of Chelsea’s defenders by Conte and talked through the different positions he would be expected to take up.
He was also included in the hours of video analysis to learn how Conte expects his teams to defend and cope with different situations.
When Conte started to consider switching to a back three, Zouma was again included in all of the positional and tactical work so that he would be ready to take up his place when fully fit and called upon.
That moment came in the FA Cup victory over Peterborough, when Zouma made his first senior appearance for 11 months on the right side of Conte’s back three.
Zouma had not played for two months when Chelsea officially appointed Conte last April after seriously injuring his knee against Manchester United, but the former Juventus and Italy coach made a point of including him as much as possible in all of his preparation.
“He talked to me like he talks to everyone,” said Zouma. “He said ‘recover well, because when you are back I want you to play’.
“In August I went on the tour with the squad, so I was next to the players, close to them, and that helped a lot. The manager explained his tactics to me because we did not know them before.
“At that time (during the pre-season tour), we were playing a four at the back but now we play a five with three central defenders.
“The manager likes to do a lot of tactics, we watch a lot of videos, and he put me in there with the fit players to watch, to learn and to try to understand. It was good. He worked to make me understand it in my head even though I was not fully fit.
“I was out for a long time, so I just needed to learn and be ready. I was ready for the Peterborough game and all the team did well, so let’s keep going now and see what happens.”
Stamford Bridge held its breath when Zouma was clattered to the ground during Chelsea’s FA Cup victory, but the former Saint-Etienne youngster said: “I said to myself – welcome back!
“Anything can happen in a game and when I had that shock I just said welcome back to myself. In English – we talk English here. I wasn’t worried because I was ready in myself, in my head I was ready to play, to go with the contact, everything – I was ready.”
Zouma faces a battle to displace Cesar Azpilcueta, David Luiz or Gary Cahill in the Premier League and now has extra competition at the back in the form of Nathan Ake, who has been recalled from his loan at Bournemouth.
“Everybody needs to be patient, even myself,” said Zouma. “Everyone wants to play, but you need to be patient. The team is doing well.”