It was a late decision from Chelsea. In the summer of 2022, the Blues went all out for Ajax midfielder Edson Alvarez, who wanted to move to Stamford Bridge, but he ended up staying in Amsterdam and Chelsea had to turn their attention elsewhere.
Similar to Chelsea ‘s signing of Saul Niguez 12 months before, the Blues brought in Denis Zakaria on a season-long loan deal on transfer deadline day. The club confirmed the deal on September 2 and it’s understood they have an option to buy the Switzerland international for a fee in the region of €30million (£26.5million). The 26-year-old midfielder is someone with a big reputation and had been linked with a move to the Premier League on countless occasions before.
However, after moving from Borussia Monchengladbach to Juventus – his parent club – in January 2022, his continuous rise seemed to somewhat halt. So when Chelsea came calling at the start of September, it was a fresh chance for Zakaria to kickstart his career yet again. That was not the case, however, in the first few months of his loan spell at Stamford Bridge.
Under Thomas Tuchel, the head coach in charge when he was signed, he didn’t make a single appearance and already there were questions being asked over the signing. Then, when Graham Potter replaced Tuchel in the dugout , it took 55 days and a total of 10 games in all competitions until he finally made his Chelsea debut. That came against Dinamo Zagreb on November 2 in Chelsea’s final Champions League group match. It was essentially a dead rubber, with the Blues already through to the Round of 16, but the midfielder was finally called upon and he did not disappoint.
An overall brilliant performance at the Bridge was capped off by a first-half goal from Zakaria – leaving Chelsea supporters confused that it took so long for him to make his debut for the club. His physicality, presence in midfield and ability to drive with the ball at his feet really stood out and he was rewarded with a start a week later away at Manchester City in the Carabao Cup.
Since returning from the World Cup, Zakaria has started in all three games for Chelsea. Whether that’s because of injuries or the change of system, it’s something the midfielder deserves and he has taken his chance. He massively impressed in the win against Bournemouth in Chelsea’s final game of 2022, where he played a huge part in Mason Mount’s fine goal. Against Nottingham Forest, he was quieter, but the team in general were poor at the City Ground so not too much blame can be placed on him there.
Against Man City on Thursday evening, though, was perhaps Zakaria’s best performance in a Chelsea shirt to date. Himself and Mateo Kovacic were brilliant on the night against what was a very strong City midfield in Kevin De Bruyne and Ilkay Gundogan.
“I thought he [Zakaria] was really good,” Potter explained to reporters after the game . “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. I thought he was the positive of the evening.”
At one point in the game, Zakaria took the ball and powered through a gap – that wasn’t really there – between De Bruyne and Jack Grealish . Pep Guardiola was pictured on the sidelines with his hands on his head. It looked more as if he was in awe of Zakaria rather than being disappointed with his players who had just been beaten. There were actually a number of positives to take from the game despite Chelsea losing five out of their last eight matches in all competitions.
The minutes given to the likes of Carney Chukwuemeka , Lewis Hall and Omari Hutchinson, the return of Kovacic to the side, an improved display from Kalidou Koulibaly, but Zakaria shining the way he did was right up there for Chelsea. The reality is, with his performances since the World Cup break, Zakaria is now the first name on the team sheet for Potter. It’s some turnaround considering at the start of October, we didn’t even know if Zakaria would ever feature for the club after making the loan move in the summer.
People were asking the question whether his loan contract would be cut short and he would return to Juventus this month. Now, the thought of that seems absurd. He’s been Chelsea’s best player in recent matches and Todd Boehly and co. have a really big decision to make in the summer when they have the option to buy the midfielder on a permanent basis. Going off recent performances, it seems like a no- brainer. £26.5million? It could be an absolute bargain.