There have been many articles springing up about Zaha in the past few days, following his permanent relocation back to SE25. The consensus being that Zaha is a huge talent who has not progressed at all since his move to Manchester United at the beginning of the 2013/14 season. The blame for this lack of progression has been portioned out to a wide range of people, but mainly, the explanations behind Zaha not being an established player at United have been attributed to four people.
1) Sir Alex Ferguson – The man who signed Zaha, but did not stay around to manage him. The argument goes that he would’ve nurtured the best out of Zaha, and blended him seamlessly into a successful side.
2) David Moyes – The man who inherited Zaha, but showed no trust in him and loaned him out. The argument goes that he was too risk averse and safe to embrace an attacking talent like Zaha.
3) Louis Van Gaal – The second man to inherit Zaha, who made it his intention all along that he had no future at Untied, and finally managed to ship him out this week. The argument goes that Zaha’s attitude was not becoming of Van Gaal’s envision of a United player.
4) Wilfried Zaha – the man himself. The argument goes that he is a sullen character, who doesn’t take direction well and who’s understanding of professionalism has been assassinated over and over with this one story as the oft regurgitated source – ‘he was the only squad member at United who opted to miss a voluntary training session right at the beginning of Van Gaal’s time at the club’.
These may be valid factors that have lead to Zaha’s return to Selhurst Park. However, one issue that I feel hasn’t been addressed, is whether Zaha was ever good enough for Manchester United in the first place?
My introduction to Zaha, was his goal on the opening day of the 10/11 season v Leicester, a limited five second clip on the BBC’s ‘Football League Show’. It wasn’t until the League Cup tie v Manchester United the following season that I was able watch him play live. Much was made at the time of this 19 year old’s performance, in an embarrassing United defeat, which is to be expected as it was a nice narrative and it made for an interesting highlights compilation. Despite it being nice to see a young English player feel confident enough to receive possession and try some tricks in a big game, my general feeling was that he’d actually had a lot of the ball with lots of space and had done very little with it. He had a languid style and a very heavy touch away from his man, I can’t say I was blown away or thought very much of the performance either positively or negatively.
One thing is for sure though, he wasn’t on the same level that a 17 year old Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, had been in the FA Cup tie v United earlier that year. Chamberlain by contrast, looked nailed on to play at the highest level. He was just so smooth and comfortable on the ball, in addition to being mature enough to make the correct decision on the ball a high percentage of the time.
From that moment onwards, the hype around Zaha just grew and grew. He was named the Football League Young Player of 2011/2012 and Bolton attempted to sign him in the 2012 January transfer period for a fee reported to be anywhere from £5-7m. I managed to catch some of his games to get a grasp of what the hype was all about. The more I saw of him, the less convinced I became.
I could see why he was fun to watch, with his stepovers and tricks, but generally I just saw an inefficient footballer;
– His first touch past a man continued to be heavy, often completely leaving his circle of control.
– Balls played into his feet were controlled up into the air and required time to bring it down and get it properly under control.
– He just wasn’t a smooth runner on the ball or doesn’t turn tightly or quickly enough. He had a very herky-jerky, lots of touches to do a little, style.
– He was struggling to stay on his feet and was off balance loads of the time.
– He wasn’t actually a stand out athlete. He was knocking the ball past people, but didn’t possess the acceleration or power to achieve separation. He didn’t seem to be springing or reacting quickly to play or onto balls.
Most concerns touched on him having little end product, but for me it was the fundamentals that I was underwhelmed by. I wasn’t seduced by the player he was, and my ceiling on the player he could become wasn’t awfully high either. The popular opinion differed from mine, this was a youngster with a unique ability, whispers were even about him potentially being a Ronaldo-lite.
Sir Alex Ferguson thought he’d seen enough, and pulled the trigger. Zaha would finish the season at Crystal Palace before joining Manchester United for £15m. I have a theory on why Ferguson was so attracted to Zaha’s game; he was desperate to find the next Cristiano Ronaldo.
When Ronaldo signed for Manchester United in 2003, he was a tall and lean kid, with brilliant skill on the ball but the rest of his game was very raw. Six years later when he left Manchester United, he was a powerful musclebound athlete with one of the most complete games of any player to have played the game. Ferguson knew he wanted a carbon copy of Ronaldo, but I think he underestimated how much of a one off he was. By taking a player with similar raw materials, he presumed he could mould him into the one player who got away, despite Ferguson being desperate to keep him. Ronaldo’s emergence as a goalscoring colossus was unrepeatable and unpredictable, people knew he had talent as an 18 year old but he far surpassed any predictions and his improvement occurred at an almost unprecedented rate. I don’t think Ferguson truly knew how or why Ronaldo became the player he did, but attempted to repeat the process, using hindsight as his guide.
Ronaldo was an 18 year old with 10 months of first team football behind him, Zaha was a completely different proposition. He was almost 21 years old; with 150 senior appearances behind him, he had formed a style of play, habits and was well on his way to becoming the fully formed version of himself. I thought the move to United was a step too far, and the last thing he needed was to be coming off the bench or playing in a less competitive environment in the U21’s. He needed to be playing regular first Premier League football at a club who would stick by him and ensure him the required game-time. Bebe was a similarly misguided project, a poor imitation who ticked just another boxes to be gambled on.
The 13/14 season gave Zaha absolutely nothing of what he needed. David Moyes assumed control of Manchester United and allowed him a run in pre-season, culminating in Zaha starting the Community Shield v Wigan. United and Zaha were pretty dire and he was removed after an hour with an apparent injury. From here on, Zaha rarely featured in the first team squad, only being included in 3/14 league squads and 0/6 Champions League squads.
Bizarrely, despite not trusting him to play any football bar in a League Cup tie v Norwich, Zaha was thrown on for the last 20 minutes as United trailed Newcastle at Old Trafford in December. Wilf was also given 10 minutes in the following game v Aston Villa, and that was pretty much the last we saw of him at Old Trafford. The way Moyes handled him was erratic, seemingly using him as a last ditch attempt to save some face in the Newcastle game but having no faith in him at any other point prior to this. The way Moyes handled him was inconsistent and unfair, the only way Zaha would’ve excelled at United is with game-time. Ten straight appearances would’ve been an fair barometer to show whether he had the quality or not, but such limited game-time simply left more questions unanswered.
A loan move to Cardiff; a struggling side, battling relegation with fractions behind the scenes, was never going to grant Zaha the stability he craved. Especially playing for a fanbase who almost wholly saw him as an overrated showpony whilst they were in the Championship the previous season, and were dismayed at the contrasting lack of praise their own players attracted. 13/14 was a wasted season for Zaha and he’d taken a huge step back in his development as a footballer.
I think it’s fair to say that Louis Van Gaal simply didn’t fancy Zaha at all this pre-season. He barely saw the pitch in pre-season and it was publicly announced that he could leave, fairly early last summer. Van Gaal can hardly take any blame for finding an inherited player surplus to requirements.
I’m not prepared to psycho-analyse the mans facial expressions from behind a computer screen or to help circulate Chinese whispers of immaturity or unprofessional behaviour. The truth is, we have countless examples of poor professionals and consistently immature players being given chance after chance at the biggest of clubs. I think this is simply that the hype regarding his ability surpassed the reality and is slowly reverting to something more realistic.
So this brings us to Zaha today. Under Pardew at Crystal Palace he’s looked ‘better’, but that description must be qualified. ‘Better’ in that he looks capable of starting for a side that still may get relegated. A £3m deal has returned him permanent to his home and fervently adoring fans at Crystal Palace. He still show’s a flash of skill and can throw a defender off balance, but the wastefulness and lack of end product remains, but more importantly so do the lack of refined footballing fundamentals.
He may prove me wrong, and I hope if he does it’s at Crystal Palace, he means more to them fans than anyone else and he can become an even bigger legend there than he already is. If I had to make a prediction, I just don’t think he has the ability for his legend to extend much further than Selhurst Park and the Holmesdale Fanatics.