Wilfried Zaha starred for Crystal Palace, moved to Manchester United, failed to establish himself, then returned to Selhurst Park to star again. But this isn’t the story of a player simply finding his level…
There’s an unwritten concept within football that’s probably so ingrained you don’t even know you’re subliminally following it.
It goes that skill and trickery is usually associated with younger players, who display the traits throughout their teenage years into their early twenties, before going one of two ways. Either they establish themselves at a big club and become more of a team player, or they drift into the wilderness having failed to mature and rid themselves of their youthful extravagance.
It’s why Adel Taarabt, for all his talents, has failed to become the superstar some anticipated when he joined Tottenham Hotspur as a 17-year-old.
It’s why many others failed to make the grade without us even becoming aware of them beyond their academy years.
However, there are exceptions. It goes without saying that elite players are given a pass, combining what might look like unnecessary flair with more than enough end product, but some outside of that world-class bracket have bucked the trend, too.
Take Hatem Ben Arfa, for example, who thrived as a teenager with Lyon but had to wait until his late twenties for the career-defining season at Nice which earned him a move to PSG, all while barely even thinking about sacrificing the flair which has become a part of his identity.
If you’re looking for a Premier League equivalent, all you need to do is look back at the most recent round of Premier League games to pick out the standout performer: Crystal Palace’s Wilfried Zaha.
Following Zaha’s starring role in Palace’s 3-0 win at Leicester City, a result which lifted the club out of the Premier League’s bottom three for the first time this season, sportswriter Aaron Gordon speculated about the optics of the Ivory Coast international’s development.
“Is he in the We Thought He Was Great When He Was 20 And He Wasn’t So He Can’t Possibly Ever Be Great Memphis Depay Zone?” Gordon asked in response to Mike Goodman’s thoughts about the player’s delayed breakout, comparing Zaha, who recently celebrated his 25th birthday, with another midfielder who similarly failed to push on as a Manchester United player.
It would be naïve to think his international choices don’t play some part here, too: there remains a sense among some England fans that a player declaring for another country not only implies they’re not good enough to represent the Three Lions, but that they never will be.
Obviously such an argument around Zaha, who declared for Côte d’Ivoire in 2016 after two non-competitive England games, fails to hold up to the smallest amount of scrutiny.
Few would play down Thiago Motta’s quality despite his decision to represent Italy after playing twice for Brazil, or Diego Costa’s declaration for Spain, while former French Under-21 international Fredi Kanouté was not considered any less of a player by fans of Tottenham and Sevilla after making his debut for Mali.
Within that context, switching allegiances to a country with a comparable performance to England at the last World Cup, and with greater prospects of continental success, should mean very little.
Equally, the idea of a player getting his big move at club level and flattering to deceive is nothing new, nor is the tendency to write that player off after one failure, as if the only factor in his failure was never actually being good enough for that higher level.
That’s not to say certain players haven’t failed due to that quality gap – indeed, there are plenty of United outcasts whose struggles were more ability-based, and who have found their level lower down the pyramid.
Looking at Zaha for Palace this season, however, the only quality gap we should be talking about concerns the gap between his own ability and that of his team-mates and opponents in the bottom half of the table.
Zaha got on the scoresheet at the King Power Stadium, showing great footwork to open up the space required to turn Christian Benteke’s pass into the Eagles’ second goal of the afternoon, but it’s another moment in the game which really stands out.
During their title-winning campaign in 2015-16, Leicester ended up romping to the title on the strength of a defensive line unfazed by whatever their opponents threw at them. A back four of Danny Simpson, Wes Morgan, Robert Huth and Christian Fuchs were – for a period – the best in the league at defending while facing the ball, prompting a run of just one defeat and 11 goals conceded in the second half of the season.
However, with the score at 2-0, Zaha did for Morgan in a manner so comprehensive that, were the Jamaican to retire immediately and move to a caravan in the wilderness out of embarrassment, there is not one person among us who wouldn’t both understand and sympathise.
Oh, and for those concerned about end-product, the ensuing ball across to Benteke could easily have brought Palace a penalty.
While certain players have earned moves to bigger clubs by overperforming in ways that don’t translate to an environment where minutes are more scarce – Wilfried Bony’s switch to Manchester City and Rickie Lambert’s Liverpool ‘homecoming’ are prime examples – the qualities shown by Zaha are so eminently What A Big Club Could Use that his underappreciation at United seems all the more baffling.
There is a major caveat, of course. Zaha was signed by Sir Alex Ferguson but never actually got the chance to work for him. And United’s new boss David Moyes reportedly pulled the plug on a move away from Old Trafford for Nani then subsequently restricted Zaha to just two substitute appearances in the Premier League before loaning him into a mess at Cardiff from which no one emerged with much credit.
However, while others might have responded to the situation by attempting to reinvent himself, Zaha has gone in the opposite direction, doubling down on the talents he has clearly never once doubted.
While it’s true that he is seeing more of the ball at Palace than he might as a cog in a bigger machine, there have been plenty of moments this season which demonstrate what he’s capable of even without the clearest of opportunities.
Zaha has spoken of the encouragement he has received from Roy Hodgson, who has urged him to respond to failing to beat an opponent by trying again, and then a third time, and a fourth, and a fifth.
The fear he instils in opposition defenders is palpable, with perhaps the best example coming in the form of a match-winning display against Chelsea and his stoppage-time equaliser against West Ham.
On that occasion, he got little change out of the opposition for 96 minutes when it came to success in front of goal, but running everyone ragged for so long, and possessing such unpredictability in his feet, left a deep backline afraid to stick a foot in for fear of conceding a penalty. Cue this…
Playing at a club where he doesn’t need to prove himself is obviously beneficial to Zaha, who rarely if ever has to worry about fans getting on his back when things go wrong.
He is also surrounded by team-mates he knows well, and with whom he appears to have a great rapport, and this too is something that might vanish with a change of location.
Recent years have shown us star power in the Premier League isn’t restricted to the biggest clubs, with players like Dimitri Payet and Gylfi Sigurdsson producing at club and international level despite not playing for one of the big six, while Riyad Mahrez’s ability to do the same and earn a league title without jumping ship might be enough encouragement for Zaha to stay put.
What we do know, however, is there’s no need for us to judge the winger by his ability, or otherwise, to transfer his talents to the biggest stage as a youngster.
Some will blossom early before fading away, while some will wait until much later on in their careers to flourish. Zaha is part of another less tangible crop, however: the early late-bloomer.
And based on what we’ve seen, this is not just a purple patch. Zaha is a player who can strike fear into anyone, and the scariest thing is, there’s still room for him to get even better.