By ‘The Don’ – @donkopleone
Wilfried Zaha is a player who divides opinion.
Last season, the 26-year-old found himself embroiled in a diving controversy, quite as Mohamed Salah has of late. Like Salah, Zaha’s direct style, as well as his quick turning ability and general confidence to take defenders on make him a frequent target of old-school defensive brutality.
Zaha was accused of going to ground too easily and too often in search of penalties. He, however, blamed opposition defenders who gave him no option but to hit the deck.
The debate was an intriguing one for a variety of reasons.
On the one hand, Zaha was making no effort to stay on his feet. On the other, it was clear that teams were looking to bully the Ivorian out of the game, by legal means or otherwise, and in doing so nullify Palace’s biggest, if not only, threat. There are some stats to come which will prove this.
Every Crystal Palace game seemed to become the story of whether the opposition could stop Zaha, and how they would go about doing so.
It was around this time – April 2018 – that I openly expressed my long-held belief that Zaha had the ability to improve any squad in the Premier League. Yes, even that of last season’s Manchester City, who were about fifteen points clear of the chasing pack.
The idea had first come to me at the back end of the 2016-17 season. I watched as Crystal Palace took on Arsene Wenger’s Arsenal at Selhurst Park, the Eagles facing a real fight to survive as Arsenal battled in the top four race.
The result? A 3-0 home victory, inspired by a certain young man by name Wilfried. The two assists to his name, if both a tad fortunate, were well deserved.
Zaha was not just a constant menace to Nacho Monreal that evening, but he bullied the Spaniard for ninety minutes, and was fully deserving of his ‘Man of the Match’ award. Perhaps most impressively, this complete domination occurred in both directions.
Alongside his defensive difficulties, Monreal struggled to get forward, lacking the physical power to get past his opponent, who showed a maturity and workrate I had never before seen in his game.
This statistical comparison shows how Zaha’s defensive workrate is fairly in line with Liverpool’s current attacking weapons.
The Devil’s advocate would point to the fact that Zaha naturally is put under more pressure as Crystal Palace obviously have less of the ball, but when I wrote my article last summer on why Shaqiri’s supposed ‘poor defensive workrate’ didn’t worry me, the Swiss’ data was similar.
Indeed, Zaha could be excused for occasionally neglecting his defensive duties. He has been- excluding his short and unsuccessful stint at Old Trafford- Palace’s attacking talisman ever since the 2012-13 season. Andros Townsend will score the occasional worldie, when Yannick Bolasie was at the club he also had the odd big performance, but Zaha is the Palace attack.
This is exemplified by the fact that heading into this season Palace were two years removed from a league victory when Zaha had missed out through injury.
Now time to debunk another Zaha myth – his perceived lack of end product. Returning to my article on why Shaqiri – despite the reservations of some – would be a good signing for Liverpool, I looked at his numbers as a percentage within Stoke’s overall output… What for Wilfried?
Zaha was involved in over 30% of all of Palace’s league goals last season. That, despite missing nine of thirty-eight games with injury. Without Zaha in the team during those nine games Palace scored a total of three goals. They lost all nine. This campaign, with three games missed, he’s been involved in 37.5%.
Zaha’s output is massively reduced by the fact that opposing defences have literally no-one else to worry about. Christian Benteke has but three league goals for Palace since the start of 2017-18. Andros Townsend six. Jordan Ayew one. Alexander Sorloth had none, before leaving on loan this month. Connor Wickham none.
In fact only defensive-midfielder Luka Milivojevic joins Zaha in double figures in that respect, and if you withdrew all his penalty goals the Serb would be on a grand total of four. Ignoring spot-kicks could be considered harsh but, without Zaha, Palace (and thus, Milivojevic) would receive far fewer penalties anyway.
I hate to quote the Daily Star but I must do so in desperation as I am unable to find any other source of this information:
As of January last year, Zaha had won the third-most penalties of any player in the league since the 2013/14 season. In front of him were only Raheem Sterling and Jamie Vardy. Both played roles in title-winning campaigns during that period, while Zaha’s Crystal Palace found themselves bouncing between 10th and 15th.
Zaha is hence the only Palace player with those double figures, other than Milivojevic, whose tally is very much dependent on his teammate’s quick feet in the opposition box.
To put it bluntly, when playing alongside utter dross in the Premier League, it is difficult to produce big numbers. Zaha’s output is not incredible, but completely understandable, considering the context.
I have a few more concerns to address in my quest to prove that Zaha is a prime fit for Anfield.
His injury record is surprisingly very good. Transfermarkt only register two moderate/severe injuries in his career, both coming last season, as earlier mentioned. He has no doubt taken other minor knocks but they would have had minimal impact to not be listed on the site.
His poor spell at Old Trafford hardly requires explanation. It was Sir Alex Ferguson, a famously expert judge of talent, who had bought Zaha in January 2013, but David Moyes had taken charge by the time the Ivorian was eligible to play.
Moyes – hardly to Zaha’s discredit – was no fan, and gave the then 21-year-old whipper-snapper just two league appearances before dispensing with him. The argument that Zaha has already blown a chance at a big club is an utterly ridiculous one. He was just victim of the Scot’s complete incompetence.
Next, some Twitter critics have suggested that Zaha’s record in big matches is worthy of concern.
Since the start of the 16/17 season, Palace have netted twenty-nine times in games against the top six. Of those twenty-nine, Zaha had a goal or assist for twelve. Guess what that means? When it comes to games against the top sides, Zaha has a hand in over 40% of Palace goals. So, if anything, Palace are even more reliant on their talisman when facing the league’s elite.
Moreover, with a freakishly high number of Palace’s games against top six sides coming while their number 11 nursed his severe injury at the start of the last campaign, Zaha has returned that 41% share despite missing out on nearly 20% of relevant fixtures. Of the six games he missed, the Eagles were blanked in all but one- surprise, surprise.
Of course, Zaha would not come cheap- he signed a new five year deal last summer, after all. Any transfer fee would likely reach if not surpass £50million.
Gone are the days, however, where a player who is certain to make some sort of impact at a top club could be purchased for a seven-figure sum. The occasional freak like Coutinho, or even arguably Xherdan Shaqiri (considering his release clause), will always come around, but both were regarded as very risky investments initially.
Wilfried Zaha, though, would be minimal risk.
This is a player who has carried a team in the Premier League for three years. Although Klopp always prefers to keep new faces out of his first-team while they take time to adapt, Zaha is comfortable with the tempo and physicality of the English game so the transition should be no issue.
His direct style is comparable to that of both Mo Salah and Sadio Mané which would mean there was a clear role for him when called upon. He would put consistent pressure on his fellow Africans for a starting spot, while offering a rotation option which would not force the Reds to completely compromise on attacking dynamism and quality.
The 26-year-old is also regarded as confident to the point of arrogance. In times gone by, this -might have worried me slightly – could he trouble the dressing room atmosphere? but the same accusations were levelled at both Shaqiri, and – you will remember – Daniel Sturridge.
In fact, it was perhaps Sturridge’s self confidence which made him such a lethal striker in his heyday, whilst Shaqiri’s self-belief was evident as he took on the mantle of defeating Manchester United in December, with all the world watching.
And like both Sturridge and Shaqiri- just as with Mo Salah and Coutinho before him- there is a sense that Zaha’s previously being overlooked at a big club is a factor which would drive him on to greater success.
Besides, his nephew went to my school, and while personal characteristics are not necessarily shared between such relations, I was struck by that boy’s humility at times. He was self-confident but nevertheless very respectful and charming. It makes you wonder.
I write this article the afternoon after Liverpool dropped crucial points in the title race at home to Leicester City. With the scores level and time ticking away, Jurgen Klopp turned to his bench and saw an ageing Daniel Sturridge and a past-it Adam Lallana, who were his favoured attacking reinforcements.
Anyone who is sceptical of whether Zaha would have the quality to make it in Liverpool red, I ask you, which of the three you would have most wanted to have sent on?
As mentioned Zaha has twelve league goal contributions against the top six since the start of 16/17. Lallana has two. Both coming during that 16/17 season which was supposedly the best of his career.
No-one is saying Zaha would come in and be assured of a starting place, and I would be surprised if he himself would expect such a thing. But he would certainly give another option of greater quality than currently found on the Reds’ bench. And as you hear all the time nowadays, “football is a squad game”.
Zaha may not be the perfect signing for Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool, but he would be a very good and safe one. He would offer the directness that seems to disappear whenever Sadio Mané or Mohamed Salah are replaced., while his end product is better than some people would have you think and his injury record less scary than some suggest.
Liverpool have had a lot of success when signing the best players from smaller English clubs under Jurgen Klopp, and Zaha would certainly fit that profile.