Why Wilfried Zaha must be careful not to fall by the wayside this season
I’m trying to get him to understand that every moment in every game is very important. It’s about concentration, about having that same desire to defend and attack, movement and everything that a top player produces. Unfortunately I didn’t think he did that
When Wilfried Zaha was substituted at half-time of Crystal Palace’s 1-0 defeat to Tottenham at White Hart Lane last Sunday, it was widely presumed that the reason was tactical: the introduction of Fraizer Campbell in place of the 22-year-old allowed Yannick Bolasie to move back to the wing and provided the Eagles with a focal point and genuine centre-forward at the top of the pitch, with Zaha seemingly sacrificed in the name of reconfiguration.
Straight-talking Palace boss Alan Pardew wasn't shy to dismiss that suggestion after the game, however, telling reporters that he made the decision simply because he wasn't impressed with the youngster’s first-half showing.
“The issue with Wilf is that he’s a fabulous footballer,” Pardew said. “I’m trying to get him to understand that every moment in every game is very important. It’s about concentration, about having that same desire to defend and attack, his movement and everything that a top player produces. Unfortunately I didn’t think he did that.
“He had 45 minutes to show me he was up to speed on those areas and he wasn’t. He needs to take away a lesson. He’s perhaps unlucky to be taken off because there were one or two others that were probably just below the level [expected], but he was probably worst of the pack.” A terrific performance at Norwich City on the opening day notwithstanding, Zaha has been below in par in the Premier League this term.
With Palace possessing greater strength in depth than ever before – Bolasie, Bakary Sako, Jason Puncheon and Lee Chung-yong have all been used out wide in the club’s eight games in all competitions so far in 2015/16 – the academy graduate’s place in Palace’s XI is under threat for the first time since 2010.
Taking the next step
Zaha’s talent was clear for all to see in his debut season, when he frequently dazzled in a rather poor Palace side that only narrowly avoided relegation to League One. He gradually improved over the next year or so before truly thriving in the promotion-winning campaign of 2012/13, when his form was so good that Sir Alex Ferguson and Manchester United parted with £15 million to bring him to Old Trafford.
The move to the north-west didn't work out for Zaha, though, with Ferguson’s successor David Moyes never really taking to the youngster amid rumours of a bad attitude and a lack of work ethic. Zaha found himself back at Selhurst Park at the start of last season, with an initial loan move made permanent in the winter window; with Bolasie on one flank and Zaha on the other, the exciting wing duo terrorised Premier League full-backs just as they had done in the Championship two seasons previously.
However, the manner in which Zaha has begun the current campaign – as well as Pardew’s words of warning following the narrow defeat to Spurs – is cause for concern. While the twice-capped England international is an outstanding dribbler capable of producing sublime pieces of skill, his end product and all-round understanding of the game still require further work.
Zaha turns 23 in November; this is the time that he should be pushing on and beginning to fulfil his potential in the top flight, but instead he is guilty of committing many of the same mistakes that have held him back in the last couple of years. While his defensive awareness has improved, Pardew clearly feels that area of his game still isn't up to scratch, while his propensity to attempt dribbles past players in dangerous areas inside his own half is exasperating.
For a player who is so adept at beating defenders with his tricky footwork in one-on-one situations, Zaha’s goal and assist records are not as good as would be expected
Moreover, for a player who is so adept at beating defenders with his tricky footwork in one-on-one situations, Zaha’s goal and assist records aren't as good as would be expected: in 51 Premier League appearances, he has scored just five times and directly laid on only three goals for team-mates. Despite having the craft and guile to regularly get himself into fantastic positions, Zaha’s final ball continues to let him down and means he's a far less efficient player than someone with his natural qualities should be.
Competition for places
With new signing Sako providing an important goalscoring threat from out wide – the Malian has two in four for Palace so far, and found the back of the net 15 times for Wolves in the second tier last term – and Bolasie’s pace and power making him absolutely essential to the Eagles’ counter-attacking style.
Sunday wasn't the first time he has been publicly called out by Pardew: the former Newcastle United boss has clearly been continually frustrated at Zaha’s incapacity to fully transfer his exceptional raw talent into consistent performances. "I don’t see him smiling enough and secondly he takes everything like a massive disappointment," said the Eagles boss back in May. "That’s a player who has been damaged. What I mean by that is if he doesn’t get a pass, he can have a little sulk – not for long, just for a couple of seconds, but that’s enough in the Premier League for something to happen. I’m saying this publicly because I think it’s important that he understands he needs to get rid of it.”
The winger has the ability to get back on track, and a handful of slightly underwhelming displays suggest he is merely suffering from a dip in form as opposed to anything more substantial.
Nevertheless, there is a feeling that Zaha hasn't quite progressed as quickly as many would have hoped. Back in 2012, when he was widely considered one of the best homegrown youngsters in the country, a place in England’s European Championship squad in France next summer would have seemed a very real possibility.
With just over eight months until the tournament gets underway, it would be a huge surprise were Zaha to even be included in Roy Hodgson’s preliminary selection. There is still ample time for the 22-year-old to turn things around and he could yet go on to have an excellent season as Palace aim for another top-half finish, but the options at the south Londoners’ disposal means he can't afford to rest on his laurels. As Pardew’s comments on Sunday indicated, this game doesn't wait around for anyone.