After recent reports were made that Wilfried Zaha rejected an improved £125,000 a week contract at Crystal Palace, the rumour mill whirred into action. The teams consistently mentioned have been Borussia Dortmund, Tottenham Hotspur, and Everton, and while the Toffees are still a team in transition, the former two are Champions League regulars.
Zaha has been at a top club in the past, in what can be considered a high-profile disaster at Manchester United. He played a total of 167 minutes for the Red Devils’ first team and had a stint on loan at Cardiff before returning to Crystal Palace for only £4 million (not a bad piece of business for them).
Perhaps at 20-years-old, the move was too early for him. But this time he will be ready. There is no rush for him to leave, but if he decides too, he has every right to be confident in success.
A Happier Player
Footballers are athletes, and often their physical health is the only thing valued and considered important, with mental health and happiness often considered irrelevant or a non-issue.
However, as Danny Rose described in an interview earlier this summer, suffering mentally makes continuing to play at the highest level extremely difficult.
The environment for Zaha wasn’t conducive to his success. He was given no chance at all to impress and having no experience in the Premier League he had no way to prove to Moyes or Van Gaal that he was capable of performing.
He ended up in a vicious cycle that many players find themselves in, his lack of game time lowering his confidence and his lowered confidence affecting the quality of his football. His interview with The Telegraph after leaving Manchester United showed just what an effect not playing had on him.
The negative media attention surrounding him did not help. Always looking for an explanation as to his lack of game time, the tabloid press ran many stories of his supposed bad attitude with rumours branching off from that, unsupported by any evidence, such as a supposed relationship with David Moyes’ daughter
Returning to Crystal Palace was the perfect decision. He returned to a club he saw so much success at, to a set of supporters all too happy to have him back, and to a level of football that would see him start regularly once again. He was able to clear his head and move away from an environment that did not value him.
Players should not have to go through what Zaha went through at Manchester United, and his experiences shouldn’t be recommended as a ‘football education’. But it did happen, he will be better for it and if he decides to move to a top club once more he will know what to expect and have the respect that his performances over the last few seasons deserve.
Influence on the pitch
It is not just mentally where Zaha is stronger as he has improved massively on the pitch as well.
His time, even at Crystal Palace, wasn’t always a resounding success, and his loan spell at Cardiff only saw a return of one assist in twelve Premier League appearances.
The foundations were always there. He displayed the signs of a typically talented but inconsistent winger. In his loan season at Cardiff he was fifth in the Premier League for successful dribbles per game, and in fact, since leaving Manchester United he has never been lower than the top ten in that regard.
He always had the pace and the dribbling ability, but at times it seemed that that was it.
In the last two seasons, Zaha has made leaps and bounds in his performances. Last season saw him take more shots per game, more successful dribbles per game and more key passes per game than of any of his previous seasons in the Premier League.
His story has been one of steady improvement in the last few seasons, with the last one being his peak (so far).
A criticism regularly levelled at wingers like Zaha is a lack of end product. This was unsurprisingly said of the Ivorian as well, who until recently saw his goals and assists coming few and far between.
Over the last two seasons, however, he has 32 goals and assists combined, which is one-third of his whole career’s worth. He has looked more clinical and more dangerous and has proven to be a nightmare for defenders to deal with.
A statistic widely mentioned this season highlights the importance of Wilfried Zaha to Crystal Palace. Zaha missed nine Premier League matches last season and Palace proceeded to lose every single one of. They only scored six in those nine, and while it may be worrying for fans that they seem so reliant on him, for Zaha it shows just the influence he has on the pitch.
Zaha is no longer simply a tricky winger with the ability to change a game every once in a while. He is now a leader, a real presence on the pitch, who not only performs himself but makes his teammates better.
If he moves upwards he may not be the number one, but neither will he shirk from the spotlight. He can carry a team and he can kick it with the best. He will not be so easy to overlook as he was as a 20-year-old at Manchester United, that’s for sure.
More than just a winger
Coming into the 2017/2018 season Crystal Palace had an obvious problem. Christian Benteke was a key player, but if anything were to happen to him, say a loss of form or an injury, the Eagles had practically no-one to replace him.
Connor Wickham would have been the obvious back-up, but for an injury, that would see him miss the whole season. Fans weren’t unduly worried though, Benteke had an excellent first season for Crystal Palace and was more than capable to lead the line.
But of course the inevitable happened, Murphy’s Law came into full effect and Benteke was woefully out of form, injured and then returned once more woefully out of form. Crystal Palace had a problem.
And yet Hodgson and Zaha managed to resolve it. The manager decided to play him and Townsend, two wingers, up front, which worked fantastically well. Townsend did the job he was expected to, but his output was unimpressive. In twelve games played up front he did not score a single goal. Instead, it was Zaha who shone, who managed nine goals in seventeen, as well as three assists.
Zaha is still first and foremost a winger. He cannot play up front on his own as he is at his best linking up and running in behind and lacks the ability to hold up play. However, he has proven that he can play as a striker in a very physical, fast-paced league, and this will stand him in good stead.
Whereas Zaha in his time at Manchester United was a winger and a winger only, the versatility he has now developed will make it far easier for him to find game time. Just another reason for the top clubs to take notice of him, and just another reason for Zaha to feel confident that this time he will succeed.
He may not leave this year, but he will be ready when he does
Wilfried Zaha does not need to rush. He seems content at Crystal Palace, and it would be unsurprising if he did stay for next season at least. The only teams heavily linked to him at the moment are Everton and Borussia Dortmund, and Crystal Palace’s reported £70 million asking price may price many clubs out of a deal, as it seems to already have done for Tottenham Hotspur.
However, if he continues to impress more and more clubs will take notice, and in today’s market £70 million may stop looking like such a hefty price. His rejection of a bumper pay rise suggests that he does not see his long-term future at Crystal Palace, anyway.
This time Zaha has nothing to fear. At 25 years old he is a better player, more mature and more of an influence than the 20-year-old that Sir Alex Ferguson signed. What Ferguson saw as potential has now been realised, and when he feels ready to make the step up again he will no doubt succeed.
Do you see Zaha staying at Palace? Let us know in the comments section below.