Wilfried Zaha: Has he missed the boat?

In recent years, Wilfried Zaha has been heavily linked with moves away from Crystal Palace to teams in the top 6 of the Premier League as well as European giants abroad. However, it remains to be seen whether he’ll be able to secure his desired move. As time goes by, Zaha’s chances of playing European football elsewhere and competing for trophies his ambitions deeply crave are gradually waning.

Set up to fail 

As many will know, Zaha has already had a big move in his career. This came in January 2013, when at just 20 years of age, Zaha signed for Manchester United in what would be Sir Alex Ferguson’s last ever signing.

Zaha, who was a highly-rated talent at the time, signed a five-year deal with United while agreeing to be loaned back to Palace for the remainder of the season in order to help the south London club achieve Premier League promotion from the Championship. This duly paid off as Palace achieved promotion that season with Zaha being the key figure. Firstly, by scoring 2 goals away to arch-rivals Brighton in the play-off semi-final second leg and winning the crucial penalty in the play-off final that sent Palace back to the top division for the first time since 2005. 

It was only meant to be onwards and upwards as Zaha would now make his way up north to Old Trafford to join the then Premier League Champions. Although it was Sir Alex who signed Zaha, he unfortunately never got to play under the legendary manager with the Scotsman retiring in the same summer that Zaha had returned from his loan at Crystal Palace.  

With David Moyes in the hot seat at Old Trafford, Zaha very quickly fell out of favour with the new Manchester United manager and was loaned to Premier League strugglers Cardiff City. Zaha reiterates he was never given a fair opportunity by Moyes. He mentioned that Moyes never showed anywhere near the belief or patience in him, that someone like Brendan Rodgers had given to a raw Raheem Sterling at Liverpool.

When Moyes was eventually sacked, new manager Louis van Gaal came in but Zaha’s fortune never changed. He was given an ultimatum of playing as a wing-back or a striker in van Gaal’s system but these positions were unfamiliar for Zaha who had never played there before and he described it as being set up to fail. In an eye-opening podcast with On The Judy, Zaha spoke about his low moments in Manchester which culminated in going through periods of depression. After only 2 Premier League appearances Zaha returned home to Palace in 2015 after a turbulent two years in Manchester. 

Wilfried Zaha at Manchester United

“nO eNd pR0duCt” 

Since Zaha’s return to Palace, he has elevated his game to an extremely high level but he has almost always been criticised for his lack of end product. Many people believe that this area of weakness has hindered him from landing a move to a bigger club. However, Zaha has vastly improved his output in the last few seasons as his Premier League goals tally has reached double figures for the second time in the last three seasons. An impressive milestone for the Ivorian who has more often than not been unfairly attributed as a player with little to no end product. What is even more impressive is that Zaha has accomplished these numbers in a team that sits 20th in XG and 18th in big chances created in the Premier League this season. 

Since 2016, Zaha has averaged around 13 Goals and Assists (G/A) a season. Manchester City forward Riyad Mahrez in a comparable position averages 16. While Mahrez’s G/A numbers are better than Zaha’s we must recognise that since 2018 Mahrez was able to boost those stats in a Manchester City team, a side of unquestionable quality domestically and in Europe with extremely talented individuals in almost every position Not to take anything away from Mahrez who is a world-class player, but it would not be unreasonable to suggest that Zaha could produce similar or even greater output in a team that is top of the XG table, managed by Pep Guardiola and averages almost 60% possession every game and has created the most big chances in the league for the last 3 seasons.  

While some football supporters and pundits would not have Wilfried Zaha in the world-class category, he is definitely a player who has shown glimpses of world-class ability and talent level and this is highlighted by coaches and his fellow peers who have had to endure coming up against him. Zaha excels in 1 v 1 duels, often relying on his sublime dribbling ability, eye-catching trickery as well as his blistering pace on the counter-attack. It is certainly arguable that he is the best player in 1 v 1 situations in the Premier League but that is a debate for another day. 

At Palace, Zaha is regarded as the main attacking threat and has been able to preserve such status for a number of seasons at Selhurst Park. This is a huge testament to his indisputable talent, work ethic, and desire to evolve as a player. Liverpool manager, Jurgen Klopp who hailed Zaha as a world-class player stated “You cannot defend him alone,” Klopp said. “We had to defend Zaha with two or three players.” Clearly, there are no doubts over his quality and he is widely acknowledged as a defender’s nightmare due to being a regular nuisance in wide areas. A similar sentiment is shared with Fulham manager, Scott Parker, who emphasised Zaha’s world-class tendencies through his ability to isolate and beat defenders 1 v 1 after Zaha’s stellar performance in a 2-1 win at Fulham. 

Players have continuously noted that Zaha is one of the toughest wingers they have ever faced. James Milner, who has been sent off on two separate occasions due to the brilliance of Zaha, identified him as an unpredictable talent. Trent Alexander-Arnold who has faced the likes of Ronaldo and Neymar has said that it was Zaha who was actually the toughest adding on that “you can’t get the ball off him, he’s “hard to tackle, fast and can score goals”. Chelsea defender Reece James also agreed and said that Zaha is the toughest opponent he has come up against.

There aren’t many wingers or forwards in the league who can frighten defenders as much as Zaha when he is in top gear and his ability to cause havoc to opposition defences is only reinforced by comments from opposition managers and peers who have had to come up against him.  

Wilfried Zaha cups his ears to the haters after scoring an equaliser against rivals Brighton

Stuck at Palace 

A common argument made is that if Zaha has a ceiling that reaches the world-class category, why is he still at Palace? Why hasn’t he been bought by the bigger clubs in the Premier League and Europe? It is the world’s worst kept secret that Zaha wants a new challenge and has stated a desire to play in a European competition. Heavy interest came from Arsenal in Summer 2019 and Zaha mentioned in a podcast with Jamie Carragher that then Arsenal boss Unai Emery made it known that he wanted to sign him. However, it was the powers above Emery that instead chose to sign Zaha’s Ivorian teammate Nicolas Pépé. However, the main reason why Zaha has struggled to secure a move away is because the Crystal Palace hierarchy have stipulated a high price and there are 3 main reasons why they have done this.

The first is because Zaha’s presence is key to Palace’s survival chances every season, without him, Palace almost never score a goal let alone win a game of football. Until the 2-1 win at Brighton on 22 Feb 2021, Palace had lost 18 out of their last 20 games without Zaha while failing to score in 16 of them. Although one could argue that if he’s THAT good a team would pay the huge transfer fee but, given that Zaha is now 28 (turns 29 in December), this means he would have next to no resale value if a team made such an investment. 

Furthermore, Palace are in a position to demand such a high fee because they hold more leverage over Zaha’s future given that his contract expires in 2023. This predicament is not only privy to players like Zaha. The same applies to other top players such as Harry Kane and James Maddison who have contracts at Tottenham and Leicester respectively until at least 2024, Grealish at Aston Villa until 2025, and Saint-Maximin at Newcastle until 2026. These long contracts mean that interested clubs will almost certainly have to pay well over the odds to acquire them. 

It is also worth noting that when Palace brought Zaha back to Selhurst in 2015 for just £3m, a part of the agreement with Manchester United required a 25% sell-on clause to be inserted. The implication of the clause is that if Palace sell Zaha to another club, Manchester United are entitled to 25% of the transfer fee. So, if Zaha was sold for the reported valuation of £80m then Manchester United would pocket £20m of that fee. 

As we approach summer 2021, interest for Zaha appears to have cooled unsurprisingly given the factors stated above such as his age and the fee it would require. Clubs would rather explore opportunities elsewhere and build for the future where they know they can sign a forward with potential resale value. As frustrating as this may be for the Ivorian, who has a strong desire to play in European competition and compete for trophies, his boat to leave, and have a second opportunity at a big club may have finally sailed. 

Zaha celebrates scoring in a 3-2 win against Arsenal at the Emirates

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