Wilfried Zaha looked set to leave Crystal Palace this summer. Rumours of interest from the top six – mainly Chelsea and Tottenham – were prevalent for several weeks, until they fizzled with a fortnight or so to go in the window.
Crystal Palace’s demands were probably part of the reason for that, but who can blame them?
The Premier League has such depth because smaller clubs are able to hold off the teams in Europe, or at least try to. The television income and sponsorship deals mean teams are not under significant financial pressure to sell their best players. Zaha falls into that bracket and no team was willing to make an offer that Palace ‘couldn’t refuse’.
It helped, too, that Zaha did not speak publicly about a potential move, let alone go on strike or hand in a transfer request.
Roy Hodgson has converted the Ivorian from winger to striker. Unsurprisingly, his productivity has increased. Zaha found the net nine times in the league last season in just 28 starts, and he followed up a brilliant 2017/18 with a goal in Palace’s opening weekend win over Fulham.
Zaha’s averaged 0.53 non-penalty expected goals and expected assists per 90 last season. To put that in some context, that’s the same as Christian Eriksen, and better than Eden Hazard, Marcus Rashford and Riyad Mahrez. His new, advanced role aids that, of course, but it shows Zaha’s growth from gifted, yet ineffective, winger to devastating forward.
It’s no surprise Spurs and Chelsea were interested in Zaha. Their reluctance to pay the money that Palace wanted is understandable, however. Neither team will have seen Zaha as a first choice and the figures mentioned were far too high for a player not expected to start in the biggest matches. Maybe, though, top clubs should have been looking at the former Manchester United man as their marquee summer acquisition.
Although Zaha’s time at Old Trafford bordered on disaster, he earned that opportunity. Everyone was aware of his enormous potential even as a teenager, and he’s finally playing at that level on a consistent basis. You can’t help but wonder if his difficult time at Old Trafford is acting as a deterrent for other top six clubs at the moment.
Zaha has been in the top three in dribbles completed per match in each of the last three seasons. Last season, he and Eden Hazard were in a league of their own again. His increased efficiency in the final third has not been to the detriment of what caught the eye in the first place, his ability to beat his man. Zaha is scoring, creating and tormenting defences. He is arguably the best player outside the top six and has a good claim to be one of the top 10 forwards in the Premier League.
One player cannot win matches single-handedly, football just doesn’t work that way. Zaha’s importance to Palace, though, cannot be overstated. The Eagles did not win a single league match in 2017/18 without the 25-year-old. Keeping Zaha this summer might actually have been the difference between safety and relegation for Hodgson’s side.
It was announced on Wednesday that Zaha signed a new five-year deal with Palace. After a summer of plenty of ambitious signings for non-top-six clubs, that deal might prove to be the best of the lot.
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