Scouting Report: Wilfried Zaha

January 16, 2013 in Championship, Transfers by Matt Harrison

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So we find ourselves here again. Major teams throwing silly money at an unproven talent in a lower league, but because he is English, we think nothing of it – well, some think nothing of it. Before the inevitable happens and Zaha leaves Crystal Palace in exchange for many millions of pounds for Ian Holloway to spend on a concrete donkey that “can do a job”, let’s take a more detailed look at the most talked about player outside the Premier League (other than Jordan Rhodes, of course).

Zaha is 20 years old, was born in the Ivory Coast and grew up in South London from the age of 4. He plays as an attacking winger/second striker much in the same way previous Palace prospect Victor Moses plays. In fact, the similarities with Moses don’t end there, as they both made their debuts against Cardiff! Zaha is not as stocky in build as Moses but does not seem to be lacking upper body strength; his goal against Wolves earlier this season is a showcase of his ball control, strength and finishing ability.

However, the media’s hype for Zaha does cloud some stats. He has only found the net five times this season, compared to, for example, Tom Ince, who has found the net 13 times. However, for the sake of clarity, let’s remind ourselves that Ince not only takes Blackpool’s penalties but also is their main attacking threat. Glenn Murray’s 22 goals for Palace has somewhat reduced Zaha’s need to be in front of the goal this season and so he has been played more as a winger. Could his lack of goals become a problem? It’s doubtful. If Manchester United do stump up the cash for Zaha, it is most likely that he is being bought to play as an out and out winger, probably as a replacement for Nani.

The problem for Zaha is that for some reason, he has become the media’s lower league darling. Journalists love to jump onto a sure-fire winner and hope he ends up at one of the biggest clubs in the league; no one has talked about a move to Villa or Wigan or Fulham or West Brom, straight away it was “Arsenal are in for Zaha”. This is a problem as Zaha needs to play games. A lot of talented English wingers have come through in the last few years but those that have gone straight to big clubs (Walcott, Oxlade-Chamberlain) are not getting the games to really progress – until their contracts are running out, that is. If you look at Ashley Young, he came through at Watford, signed for Villa and developed into a class Premier League player and has since flourished at Manchester United. If Young had gone straight from Watford to United, his career trajectory would most likely have been very different. Victor Moses is another benefiting from a being allowed to develop through regular games in the Premier League.

Zaha’s strengths are fairly clear: pace, trickery and flair. You don’t have to be Alan Hansen to say “defenders hate it when wingers run at them” and it turns out, it’s true! Zaha’s good work has mostly come from the fear he strikes into defenders. No one wants to play against him and his raw ability could even scare the odd Premier League defence. Zaha’s main weakness is likely to be his price tag. He has already been hyped so high that the price paid is likely to define the next few years of his career. He will be under immediate pressure and whether or not he can thrive off that will be the difference.

However, you sense that going to United will be as good an idea as possibly for Zaha. Ferguson and the coaches at the club turned Cristiano Ronaldo from raw talent to world player of the year. No one is claiming Zaha will get to that level, but he’ll surely be in good hands.