CHANGE OF FORTUNE: Nzonzi, centre, in action against Arsenal at Emirates Stadium
TONY PULIS might have signed Steven Nzonzi for Stoke, but it has been the arrival of the managerial duo of Mark Hughes and coach Mark Bowen this season that has brought about a notable turnaround in the fortunes of the all-action midfielder.
While others looked on in 2009, Sam Allardyce brought Steven Nzonzi to English football. As Blackburn manager, he invested £500,000 on the fresh faced 20-year-old who hailed from the Paris suburbs – a player who even then was drawing parallels with his legendary compatriot, Patrick Vieira.
Plucked straight out of the French second division and with less than 40 senior appearances to his name, during that first season at the Lancashire club, Allardyce saw enough to install him as a regular in the heart of his midfield and within a year he had earned a new contract.
Nzonzi is proud to acknowledge the influence that Vieira has had on his game, they share similar physical attributes and a languid, yet combative style and it is high praise indeed that Arsene Wenger – the man who first brought Vieira to English football – has kept a watchful eye on Nzonzi’s progress.
His second and third years at Blackburn presented challenges and when the side made their Premier League exit in 2012, the player himself agitated for a transfer.
Both Arsenal and Chelsea pondered moves. Indeed, rumours of a switch to the Emirates were rife, but when it came to the wire it was ultimately Stoke that secured his deadline day signature. Although in many ways a sideways step, it was one that typified the frustrations associated with Nzonzi.
Disciplinary problems had crept into his game during Blackburn’s ill-fated campaign in 2012 and questions were sometimes asked of his hunger and temperament. His international career swiftly sparked into life at Under-21 level with France upon moving to the Premier League but stalled when the prospect of full international caps beckoned.
Instead, the Democartic Republic of Congo came knocking, a country for which he is eligible to play by his father’s birth – but despite repeated overtures, he has resisted still pining for the call from Les Bleus.
Tasked with changing Stoke’s footballing philosophy, Nzonzi has been at the fore. A pass success ratio regularly under Hughes above 80 per cent this season puts him among the best in the top-flight. This and a vastly improved disciplinary record season explain why he has started every game under the new boss.
The changes have been subtle, Nzonzi has been offered a more advanced role which serves as a fulcrum for the team to press a lot higher up the pitch and rely less on long passes than the team did under the previous regime.
Both Stoke and Nzonzi himself remain a work in progress, but although the World Cup is likely to come too soon for the 25-year-old, dreams of the chance to follow in the footsteps of Vieira are starting to come back into view.