The January Window: A premature option for Wilfried Zaha

In the garrulous world of Ian Holloway, much of what he says can be taken with a pinch of salt.

However, when the Crystal Palace manager recently referred to the ‘rack ‘em and stack ‘em’ tendency of Premier League clubs with prodigious talents, he made a valid point.

Sure Wilfried Zaha, already a capped England international at just twenty, seemingly appears ready for a multi-million pound move to the Premier League.

However, given that Arsenal, Tottenham, Manchester United and Manchester City are his most likely suitors, it seems unlikely that Zaha will go on to enjoy the same rapid, crucial progression as he has with Palace in the past three seasons.

Francis Jeffers (21), John Bostock (16), Zoran Tosic (21) and Adam Johnson (23) all serve as dangerous precedents and running parallels to the tenderly integrated Theo Walcott (17), Gareth Bale (18), Cristiano Ronaldo (18) and Joe Hart (19) for highly rated under-23 year olds making the step up to the delicate environments of the above-mentioned clubs.

Admittedly, an argument can be made for a move to Liverpool, Everton, West Ham or Fulham, but these clubs are unlikely to be able to afford Zaha’s likely £15 million fee. Therefore, Zaha would be well-placed to – in contrast with the openly-flirtatious Adel Taarabt and QPR in 2010/2011 – keep his head down, maintain his still-improving consistency and fire Palace to Premier League promotion.

This would allow the twenty-year old Zaha to adopt a similar role with a Premier League club (maybe even Palace, themselves) in 2013/2014 to that of which he has in the Championship: first and for most, a starter; and, secondly, a key outlet of attacking play.

After all, having already eclipsed Victor Moses’ most impressive senior performances at Palace from 2007-2010, Zaha is well-placed to become Palace’s most acclaimed club-starting talent since Ian Wright in 1985.

This is no mean feat and while the hype surrounding Zaha may seem somewhat premature, it is understandable as to why the English media are so excited about a man – like George Best and Ronaldinho, in their eyes – who has retained his playground traits into his senior career.

Usually, these are, effectively, coached out of players once they turn professional but in honing his appreciation of the team as a whole under the vital tutelage of George Burley, Dougie Freedman and Zaha’s more Championship-hardened teammates, the twenty-year old possesses a unique playing style for an Englishman.

Therefore, whether Palace were struggling in 2011/2012 or excelling in 2012/2013, Zaha has always been at the heart of what has been good about the Eagles: exciting, pace-filled, free-flowing attacking football.

Sure, like most wingers, Zaha is still guilty of over-elaborating and being occasionally selfish, but this has not been a massive problem due to the success of his mesmirising array of shimmys, pirouettes, stepovers and sprint bursts.

This crystallised in Zaha’s coming-of-age performance in Palace’s 1-2 victory over Manchester United in the quarter-final of the Carling Cup on 30 November, 2011. Constantly teasing, tormenting and beating Fábio, Ezekiel Fryers and Jonny Evans, Zaha was far from out of his depth for 120 minutes.

It was the premise for Zaha’s evolution: realising, if he even needed to, that his skillset could translate against Premier League opponents; but, also, in the long run, that he would eventually have to bulk-up physically to give himself the best possible chance against top-level, athletic full-backs.

So, in comparing Zaha of the spring of 2012 to the autumn of 2012, it is clear that he and Palace have certainly addressed this – much like Walcott and Arsenal in 2009/2010 – and Zaha is far from the leggy, slight individual he was even just eight months ago.

This is why Zaha has been courted from all corners, both on a club level and internationally. After all, only a few weeks ago, Didier Drogba personally phoned Zaha to outline the merits of declaring for the country of his birth.

However, like Raheem Sterling, Zaha spent the vast majority of his life in England. So, while Roy Hodgson’s call to him for the friendly against Sweden may have seemed a somewhat desperate move by Hodgson to cap Zaha and veer away from his traditional conservativeness in garnering media favour, it was inevitable that Zaha would eventually declare of his own volition.

Hodgson’s call-up was the perfect evidence of Zaha’s meteoric rise, with the youngster only winning his first under-21’s cap, against Belgium, on 29 February, 2012. However, Hodgson’s reasoning, inadvertently, sounded a warning:

I don’t know what to expect, to be perfectly honest. I would think he’s on the radar of virtually every Premier League club. But it would be wrong of me, after one training session, to say: ‘Yes, this is a superstar in the making.’

Admittedly, Hodgson used a similar assimilating tactic with Sterling for the World Cup qualifier against Ukraine on 11 September, 2012, but Sterling had already played seven senior, competitive matches for Liverpool in the previous thirty-nine days. From this, it was little surprise that Zaha’s shock and innocence was evident in his candid admission of “wow, everything [is] happening so fast” on Twitter.

This was affirmed by Palace’s shirt sponsors running the cringey ‘he’s just too good for you’ slogan during England’s 2-4 defeat to Sweden on 14 November, as the player Zaha represents – both as a foreign-born and a magic box of tricks  – is an undoubted novelty in recent decades of the England national team.

Possibly reflected in Zaha’s nominal display in Palace’s 3-0 victory over Derby on 17 November after a whirlwind week, it is fair to say that careful management is going to be key to the youngster continuing his international-meriting progression.

With Holloway and a feverent support at Selhurst Park, Zaha could achieve this and in helping his once-debt ridden club not only achieve promotion but also financial sustainability, Zaha could eventually leave the club in the best possible fashion: as an undoubted club legend.

The Author

Ciaran Kelly

Sports writer and author of José Mourinho: The Rise of the Translator, featuring exclusive interviews with key figures not synonymous with the traditional Mourinho narrative and Johan Cruyff: The Total Voetballer, an ebook which peaked in the Top 40 of Amazon's top 100 Sports Books' chart. I have also written for Britain best selling football magazine, FourFourTwo and other British publications. I am a fully qualified reporter with an NCTJ Diploma in Journalism and a Masters degree in Sports Journalism from St. Mary's University, London.

One thought on “The January Window: A premature option for Wilfried Zaha

  1. Refreshing to read an informed and balanced article about Wilf. ‘He’s just too good for you’ is both wonderful and cringe-worthy, but, mire often than not, it’s true.

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