Comment and Analysis @ghostgoal
Roy Hodgson has indicated that there could be a dilemma ahead for Crystal Palace and Wilfried Zaha but does his form warrant a move? The headline numbers do not tell the full story, writes Adam Bate
Last Updated: 31/07/20 8:36am
Wilfried Zaha receives the ball and is ready for the counter-attack. He dances away from Nathaniel Clyne before escaping the attentions of Jefferson Lerma despite the fact that the Bournemouth midfielder attempts to push him to the ground with both hands.
Somehow Zaha retains his balance. The momentum is with him and Crystal Palace this May afternoon in 2019 and by the time that he finds Andros Townsend with the outside of his boot he is already celebrating with the supporters at Selhurst Park. It is 5-3 to Palace.
That was the final day of the previous Premier League season. This time around it was a more prosaic affair. No fans and no victory. Just the consolation of a dreary draw with Tottenham that spared the ignominy of an eighth straight defeat to end their campaign.
Roy Hodgson has become accustomed to answering questions about Zaha leaving. For supporters, it has been the backdrop to many a summer since his debut over a decade ago. They know he is too good for opponents. Opponents often think he is too good for Palace.
But the tone was different this time around, the atmosphere not quite as supercharged as before. Hodgson still wants his star player around. But after a season in which Jordan Ayew was Palace’s player of the year, Hodgson was ready with the stick as well as the carrot.
“It has obviously affected him because his form in the last few weeks has really been poor considering what he is capable of doing,” he said when asked about Zaha’s future plans.
“It’s a dilemma for the club and a dilemma for him if he is so set on leaving. If he feels he just does not want to be with us any more, that would be sad. We still like him very much, we can’t make him like us. This is a situation that only he and the club can sort out.”
Zaha’s exit this summer is far from inevitable. He is only two years into the five-year contract that he signed in 2018. Steve Parish had to make him the highest-paid player in the club’s history to persuade him to sign, but it means that Palace retain some control here.
Even in a depressed transfer market, any suitor would have to pay up. And with Zaha turning 28 in November, they would be signing a player with questionable resale value.
The biggest clubs tend to feel uncomfortable about that these days. Consider the list of players who the top-four teams in England have paid money for over the past two seasons.
The average age is 23 and the oldest has been Riyad Mahrez who finally completed his move to Manchester City in the summer of 2018. Even he was younger then than Zaha is now.
As a result, the Ivory Coast international might have to look a little lower down the table if he is keen on a switch that keeps him in the Premier League rather than moving overseas.
Arsenal and Everton were interested last summer, but were unable to come up with a deal that Palace found acceptable. One year on, will that agreement be any easier?
Even if there is an argument for Palace freshening up what is one of the oldest squads in the Premier League, the chances of them receiving the fee they would want have diminished.
That is because, on the face of it at least, as Hodgson suggested, Zaha’s contribution has dipped somewhat in recent times. Despite playing every game for Palace this past season, he scored only four goals. That return is down on each of the previous three seasons.
His assist tally was no more impressive. Zaha managed only three of those – also down on last season and his joint-lowest in that same four-year period. Ostensibly, if Zaha does push for a move elsewhere he will be doing so after a year in which his output dipped alarmingly.
It is the sort of decline that sets alarm bells ringing in recruitment departments. They will be well aware that Zaha is entering the phase of his career where dribblers can lose their fizz. But in Zaha’s case there are mitigating circumstances that should alleviate these concerns.
Firstly, those assist numbers do not include the penalty that he won at Arsenal, let alone the one that he was controversially denied against Manchester United.
They do not include the pass before the pass that secured a point in that draw at the Emirates Stadium, or the dribble that drew defenders for Ayew’s winner over Watford.
But there is more to it than that.
The reason for his diminished goal output can largely be explained by his change of role. Zaha reverted to the left wing for much of the season with Ayew blossoming in the centre.
It has taken Hodgson time to find an effective striker and there were periods in the previous seasons when he opted to use Zaha more centrally in a counter-attacking 4-4-2 system. That position gave Zaha far greater freedom with licence for him to roam in search of the ball.
Although Zaha had a brief run up top recently with Christian Benteke suspended, and some games on the right prior to that, Ayew’s emergence has seen him restricted to the left wing.
As a result, he is crossing and dribbling more again, but not working in such threatening areas as before. His number of touches in the penalty box in down on previous seasons.
The emphasis has shifted. He is drawing opponents towards him and creating space for others to exploit. Tellingly, while it was well documented that Aston Villa’s Jack Grealish was the most fouled player in the Premier League this past season, Zaha was next on the list.
It is perhaps no coincidence that Zaha was fouled more than previous seasons now that he was back on the wing again. It is easier to commit those offences further from the goal. Coupled with greater defensive responsibilities, Zaha has effectively taken one for the team.
It would be understandable if that were enough to leave him feeling frustrated; natural for him to wonder how much easier it might be were he afforded more freedom and given more opportunity to enjoy the feel of the ball at his feet in a more dominant side.
There will still be those who hark back to his time at Manchester United, the opportunity that passed him by. But the blame for that needs to be shared around. Zaha never actually started a Premier League game for United. And besides, it was an age ago now.
The more relevant factors that could deny him a move are age and form but neither need be fatal to his prospects. Palace fans know how good their hero is. If there is comfort to be found in any departure, it would be that others might finally appreciate just how good.