Chelsea’s deadline-day signing of Denis Zakaria received relatively little attention. As a loan deal with an option, it is low risk with low expectations – people remember Saul Niguez’s underwhelming season. But it would be a mistake to underestimate Zakaria.
While this is likely to be a short-term fix for Chelsea before pursuing bigger midfield targets next summer, those who have followed the player’s career closely would not be surprised if he is able to seize this opportunity to impress in the Premier League.
Zakaria’s progress has stalled but the Switzerland international is only 25. Before his brief stay at Juventus, before the injuries at Borussia Monchengladbach, he was one of Europe’s most promising midfield talents. Liverpool retained an interest this summer.
Adam Owen was part of the coaching team at Servette when Zakaria first broke through.
“He was a standout even then,” Owen tells Sky Sports. “Kevin Cooper was the manager who gave him his debut at 17. He came on and that was it. He was in the team from then on.”
The talent was hard to miss. “I think everybody knew it throughout the academy. The frustration initially was that he felt he should have been playing even earlier than he was. We kept him back just because the timing had to be right.”
Owen and Zakaria communicated in French rather than English and he remembers a “great lad” who he would like to have worked with for longer. “He left because the club fell into financial difficulties and he went to Young Boys.” From there, his career exploded.
“Physically, he was an absolute machine even then. Good with the ball. It does not surprise me that he has gone on to do so well. He can drive with the ball, decent in defence, solid. As a teenager, he had all those characteristics. He probably reminds you of Patrick Vieira.”
Those comparisons with Vieira have been there throughout his career and they make sense – the long limbs and the big stride can be striking when in full flow. But other names have been mentioned. Gladbach legend Lothar Matthaus once likened him to Toni Kroos.
In truth, Zakaria’s passing is safe rather than spectacular, but he was one of only seven players in the Bundesliga with a passing accuracy of over 90 per cent last season. He can also break up play with his interceptions and protect the defence.
Fabian Otte is the goalkeeper coach at Gladbach and had a close-up view of this ability from the dugout. “He is an unbelievable box-to-box player who is amazing at winning balls defensively and has great power driving forward,” Otte tells Sky Sports.
“I can only say great things about Zaki. He is a very humble person. He had a big injury some time ago when he collided with Yann Sommer, so he would have gone earlier if healthy and he would have been a £30m transfer easily if his contract had not been up.
“I hope he will do amazingly because he deserves it.”
That injury to which Otte refers is the reason why there has not been more fanfare. Can a player who was unable to persuade Juventus of his worth in his 11 Serie A appearances there, really play a key role in the Premier League at Stamford Bridge?
Owen is now assistant manager at Hibs but he has a PhD in sport and exercise science and coaching, having served as performance director at Rangers and fitness coach of the Wales national team. He believes there is still time for Zakaria to reach the next level.
“He is young enough to get through it. The key is always making sure that he has the right rehab and the right training. The development is still there. Just because you are a senior international, there can still be progression and development in players.
“You have to take a chance on someone like that. The experience he has had, he has handled the step up to every level he has gone to. For me, if he can get himself back to where he needs to be physically I have no doubt he can step up again.
“The potential for him to go on and do even more is significant.”
If Zakaria can fulfil that potential then Chelsea will have a midfielder who can be rather more than just a stop-gap signing.