Chelsea's Kurt Zouma learning 'Italian style defending' from Antonio Conte
Kurt Zouma says he is learning a lot about the Italian style of defending under Antonio Conte, and admits that words of encouragement from Chelsea's head coach helped him during his lengthy rehabilitation from a serious knee injury.
The 22-year-old came off the substitutes' bench in Chelsea's 3-1 win over Arsenal to make his first Premier League appearance in almost exactly a year since rupturing the anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee during a Premier League clash with Manchester United.
Zouma's return to action has been further delayed by the form of those in front of him; Chelsea boast the second-best defence in the division and are top of the table by nine points, having won 16 of their last 18 league matches since switching to a 3-4-3 system in September.
Conte's tactical demands have required some adjustment but Zouma says he enjoys a positive relationship with the Italian, who brought him on Chelsea's preseason tours of Austria and the United States despite his lack of fitness and frequently included him in tactical sessions.
"I was really pleased when I learned I was going to America," Zouma told the Daily Mirror. "I didn't know him [Conte] before, he didn't know me. He'd just watched me in the odd game on TV, but just one or two times maybe. Then he said he trusted me. Those words made a difference.
"He's a really nice guy. He thinks, eats and sleeps football. He talks football, everything is football with him. He's so passionate and he wants to give that to the players.
"Tactically we watch a lot of videos and we learn. Details are important to him. He says 'You can't be there, you need to be there because if the ball goes over you there you're dead, so just anticipate.' You learn a lot with him, a lot. The Italian style is very good for defenders."
Zouma moved to Chelsea from Saint-Etienne in the summer of 2014 and is already on his third manager at Stamford Bridge, with Guus Hiddink replacing the sacked Jose Mourinho on an interim basis in December 2015 before Conte arrived last summer.
"My first year at Chelsea we won the Capital One Cup and then the Premier League. I was dreaming," he added. "But managers go. It's part of football. I don't feel guilty. Mourinho's gone, let's think about the future.
"It was a bad season, now we are doing well again. Conte loves what he does. He wants to give that special feeling to us. We need to love football like he does, to breathe football. That's what he wants."
Liam is ESPN FC's Chelsea correspondent. Follow him on Twitter: @Liam_Twomey.