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September 25, 2022

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Wilfried Zaha: What next for Crystal Palace’s talisman?

8 min read

By @GregLeaFootball

Crystal Palace have made a bright start to the summer transfer window. Michael Olise and Marc Guehi are the type of signings that supporters have wanted to see for some time: young, up-and-coming talents with time to get better and a hunger to prove themselves in the Premier League.

“[I was] born in the Ivory Coast, born in Abidjan, came here at the age of one and lived in England all my life. I grew up mainly in Lewisham, so I know the area,” Guehi, signed from Chelsea on a five-year deal, told Palace’s official site.

“I obviously moved closer to where I was at Chelsea but I’m a London boy and know exactly what it’s about to be a London boy. When you’re from south London, it’s really exciting. You know what the feel’s about, what the fans are about and you have that real connection.

“[Selhurst Park] is one of the stadiums in the Premier League that has the best fans, always rocking there. A fantastic atmosphere, so I’m hopefully going to experience that one day.”

Ever since a Steve Parish-led consortium completed their takeover in 2010, Palace have emphasised their south London roots. ‘South London and Proud’ became the club’s slogan. Billboards around the local area sprang up, celebrating academy products such as Nathaniel Clyne, Kieron Cadogan and Sean Scannell. None of the posters advertised season tickets or merchandise. The aim was merely to promote the club’s identity as a pillar of the local community.

Eleven years on and Palace are an established Premier League side. Parish and his colleagues are again seeking to reaffirm the club’s south London roots in an attempt to appeal to both prospective new signings and talented youngsters seeing to enter the academy system. South London is a hotbed of footballing talent, and Palace – who were awarded Category One academy status this year – hope to benefit from that. Guehi and Olise no doubt had offers from elsewhere, but the chance to play regular first-team football at Selhurst Park is clearly an appealing prospect.

The two new boys – along with Nathan Ferguson and Eberechi Eze, who were both signed last summer – point to a shift in direction in Palace’s approach to recruitment. Yet regardless of who else enters the building before the transfer window closes at the end of next month, one thing is a given: Wilfried Zaha, the homegrown talisman from south London, will be Palace’s most important player in the 2021/22 season.

That has been the case ahead of every campaign since 2014/15, when he returned to Selhurst Park after an ill-fated spell at Manchester United. Yet Zaha has changed as a player in the intervening years. Last season was the most productive of his career to date, as the 28-year-old scored 11 goals in the Premier League. He dribbled less frequently but shot more often, as we will explore in more detail below. The question now is: how exactly does Patrick Vieira intend to use Palace’s best player?

For most of last term, Roy Hodgson deployed Zaha up front in a 4-4-2 formation. There were occasional appearances out on left flank, particularly towards the end of the campaign, but Zaha was less a winger and more of a central attacker. The Ivory Coast international was not a static forward who merely waited inside the box for service, but there was a clear focus on getting Zaha on the ball in the final third, rather than picking it up deep and carrying it forward.

Only one of Zaha’s 11 Premier League goals came from outside the penalty area. That strike was against West Ham United, and was only around 20 yards from goal. He averaged two shots per game in 2020/21, an increase on the 1.6 per match he managed the previous season. The amount of efforts Zaha landed on target also rose, from 0.4 per game to 0.7, as did his expected goals: from 5.3 to 7.5, according to fbref.com. That demonstrates that Zaha got himself into better scoring positions last season than he did in 2019/20.

While 11 goals marked a new high for Zaha, the 28-year-old registered only two assists in the Premier League – one fewer than the prior season, and some way short of his career-best of nine in 2016/17. The first was a fine reverse ball into Jairo Riedewald in the victory over Fulham. The second was a piercing pass into Jordan Ayew inside the Leeds United penalty area, with the Ghana international applying the finish.

“He’s an excellent player and that’s what he’s capable of doing,” Hodgson said after that game against Fulham. “If ever I sound mildly critical he thinks I’m picking on him, but every press conference I go to he’s the only player they want to talk to me about! He deserves all the praise he’s going to get. He reminds us that when he’s on top of his game he’s a very hard player to stop.”

Both of Zaha’s assists last season came from the same area of the pitch: the left half-space. This too was indicative of Zaha’s positional switch. In previous campaigns he spent much more time taking on full-backs and getting crosses or cut-backs into the box from out wide. Last season he spent much more time in central areas, and when he did drift out wide it was usually a temporary measure to evade his marker.

It is interesting to note that Zaha’s expected assists tally actually rose last season, from 5.3 to 5.9. This suggests that better finishing from his team-mates would have seen Zaha finish with more than two assists. It was still significantly short of the 10.1 expected assists he racked up in 2017/18, although that came in a season in which he was playing out wide and in a much more attack-minded Palace team.

Perhaps more than any other attribute, Zaha is renowned for his dribbling. The Ivorian is certainly quick, but he only occasionally uses raw pace to beat his man. This has been the case ever since the days when Zaha was terrorising full-backs in the Championship. Whereas Yannick Bolasie often powered past defenders, his partner in crime on the other wing tended to use his balance, footwork and trickery to take opponents out of the game.

Last season, though, Zaha was nowhere near as prolific a dribbler. In 2019/20, he averaged 4.3 dribbles per game. Only Wolverhampton Wanderers’ Adama Traore and Allan Saint-Maximin of Newcastle United bettered that record. Had Zaha maintained his dribbling rate last term, he would have topped the Premier League charts in that area. Instead he produced only 1.8 dribbles per game, a clearer indication of his change of role than any other.

“I used to dribble in my own half so much,” Zaha told The Athletic in an illuminating interview published in November. “By the time I got to the goal, I was too tired to cross it or shoot. So now I try to save my energy for the key moments. I have worked on my technique to allow me to execute certain passes, through-balls and shots that I want to take on.

“I feel like you can only understand yourself from playing games and gaining that experience. It’s just like, why am I near the goal and too tired to get a proper shot off? I’m crossing it over the goal and falling over when I’m crossing it. You know what, go back to square one and see what you need to change there. Maybe don’t take that extra stepover, maybe take that touch inside and lift your head. Over time I’m improving at that, and those are the things I had to think over.”

The arrival of Eze last summer was key to the success of his team-mate’s redeployment. Palace are not blessed with a central midfielder who routinely breaks opposition lines with penetrative passing. As such, Eze was responsible for much of Palace’s ball progression in Hodgson’s final season at the helm. His ability to do so, either through passing or dribbling, allowed Zaha to stay high up the pitch. If Eze had not been there, the Ivorian would probably have dropped a lot deeper than he did.

Eze, of course, faces several months on the sidelines after rupturing his Achilles in May; the former Queens Park Rangers man might be out of action until 2022. Vieira will hope that Olise can pick up some of the slack, although he too is nursing an injury and could miss the first few weeks of the season.

Those absences, together with Vieira’s own view of the game, mean we will probably see Zaha back out wide in 2021/22. He did make eight appearances from the left flank last season, with Hodgson reverting to a 4-3-3 in the closing weeks. Twenty-one of his Premier League outings came in a central role alongside another forward, but it is hard to see Vieira option for a 4-4-2 formation. Zaha would almost certainly be ineffective as a lone striker, so the only other system which would allow him to be deployed up front is a 3-5-2, but the likes of Joel Ward and Tyrick Mitchell are ill-suited to the role of wing-back.

In Saturday’s friendly against Walsall, Vieira opted for a 4-3-3 formation with Zaha and Ayew either side of Rob Street. A front three of Zaha, Olise and Christian Benteke is certainly easy to envisage, with Eze potentially operating as part of a three-man midfield upon his return.

Palace should certainly be more exciting to watch in 2021/22 than they have been in recent years. Hodgson’s last two seasons at the helm quickly became slogs, and while the former England boss deserves huge credit for preserving Palace’s Premier League status in difficult circumstances, the Selhurst Park faithful are craving more entertainment in the upcoming campaign.

Even so, it cannot be denied that the appointment of Vieira represents a step into the unknown. His tenure at Nice ended badly, and his only other managerial experience came with New York City in the very different world of MLS. Important squad players such as Patrick van Aanholt, Mamadou Sakho, Scott Dann and Andros Townsend have departed the club at the end of their contracts, while the future of Gary Cahill remains uncertain.

For all those reasons Zaha will be more important than ever next season. Inevitably, there have been whispers that he wants to move on. In an interview with the BBC, Parish said any transfer would “have to be right for the football club.” It is therefore hard to see any deal happening this summer. Even with exciting additions such as Olise and Guehi, Vieira’s side would surely be the favourites for relegation if Zaha sought pastures new. A departure in 2022, when the Ivory Coast international will have just one year left on his contract, is much more of a possibility.

Needless to say, Palace will hope to still be a Premier League club by then – and Zaha will be as integral as ever to their survival efforts. The upcoming season will be his 11th as a first-team regular at Selhurst Park. He is closing in on 400 appearances for the club in all competitions, and should also surpass 250 Premier League outings for Palace in 2021/22. To many he is already the Eagles’ greatest player of all time.

Having been on Palace’s books since 2004, save for a 16-month absence while playing for Manchester United and Cardiff City, Zaha has seen a great deal of change in this part of south London. He has been a first-team player under Paul Hart, George Burley, Dougie Freedman, Ian Holloway, Tony Pulis, Neil Warnock, Alan Pardew, Sam Allardyce, Frank de Boer, Roy Hodgson and now Patrick Vieira. The managers at Crystal Palace may come and go, but 11 years on from his debut season Zaha is more important than ever.

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