Devils off his shoulders: How Wilfried Zaha put a smile back on his face at Palace
Throughout his 27-year spell in the Old Trafford hot seat, former Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson made some fantastic purchases in the transfer market. Eric Cantona (£1.2 million), Peter Schmeichel (£750,000), Cristiano Ronaldo (£12.25m) and Roy Keane (£3.75m) all represented superb value for money, while the likes of Wayne Rooney, Rio Ferdinand and Ruud van Nistelrooy made vital contributions despite costing heftier sums.
Ferguson’s final signing, however, will go down as one of his worst. Wilfried Zaha was captured from Crystal Palace for an initial fee of £10m, but the winger managed just three competitive appearances for United and only 28 minutes of action in the Premier League. Ferguson’s successor David Moyes didn't take to Zaha, with rumours of a bad attitude and lack of work ethic never too far from the surface.
United cut their losses in January, selling the 22-year-old back to Palace, who he had joined on loan at the end of August. With the Red Devils visiting Selhurst Park this Saturday, Zaha – who has been in fine form since Alan Pardew returned to south London at the start of the year – will be out to show Louis van Gaal what he is missing, and Ferguson that his final signing wasn't the mistake it initially seemed to be.
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You'd better smile
Zaha first broke into the Palace team at the start of 2010/11, having made his first-team debut as a substitute against Cardiff in March of the former year. He got better with every passing season, culminating in some superb displays en route to being named the Football League’s joint-best player by FourFourTwo in Crystal Palace’s promotion campaign of 2012/13.
Indeed, it was his form in the first half of that season which earned Zaha the move to Manchester, with Ferguson agreeing a deal that would see him join up with United that summer.
The short-lived stint at Old Trafford seemed to do Zaha more harm than good. The England international is very much a confidence player, someone who relies on regular first-team action and the proverbial arm around the shoulder. In that sense, he has certainly profited from being back in familiar surroundings.
"There are two things with him," said Pardew in March. "Firstly, I don't see him smiling enough, and secondly he takes everything like a massive disappointment. Now that's a player who has been damaged."
But with Zaha on the right flank and Yannick Bolasie on the left, Palace have the country’s most exciting pair of wingers, with the duo something of a throwback: wide players who always try to beat their man on the outside and get crosses into the box. Indeed, Zaha is a player who relishes one-on-one duels with a full-back. In games with Sunderland and West Brom in recent weeks, he attempted a combined 31 take-ons.
He has also improved the defensive side of his game this term, developing a savviness and footballing brain that didn't always seem to be present earlier in his career. He recovered the ball 13 times against Leicester and Newcastle in February, and made four successful tackles out of five attempted against Sunderland.
Zaha is undoubtedly an exciting prospect, but his personal duel with Chelsea’s Branislav Ivanovic last weekend evidenced the 22-year-old’s propensity to frustrate: despite beating the Serb many times with some wonderful dribbling, all seven of his crosses failed to reach their target. It was a similar situation in the aforementioned game with QPR, where none of his five deliveries found a Palace shirt.
There is a feeling that Zaha is still too raw and unpolished for someone who turns 23 this year, and he will become an even bigger threat if he can improve the quality of his final ball.
If the young wideman can replicate his recent displays for the duration of a Premier League campaign, he may become the type of player that clubs like United target. Van Gaal’s side have been crying out for more directness and penetration at times, and Zaha’s tricky dribbling and tendency to stay wide could certainly have helped to stretch play, and quicken the pace of a game after a spell of possession.
United have probably done enough to secure a top-four finish this season, but the methods they have employed to do so – including Marouane Fellaini as a makeshift targetman and Juan Mata as a right midfielder – have felt more like a stop-gap than a blueprint for sustained success over the coming years.
Angel Di Maria has not yet been the triumph many envisaged, while Ashley Young and Antonio Valencia, the other primary options out wide, will be 30 by the time the 2015/16 season starts. Thus, the agreed deal to bring PSV's 21-year-old Memphis Depay to Old Trafford next season looks a step in the right direction.
But besides, it remains unclear whether Zaha is actually good enough for the elite level of English football. His mesmerising footwork and ability to beat a full-back with a variety of skills and tricks regularly shift fans to the edge of their seats and jaws to the floor, but the winger’s end product is still agonisingly inconsistent. He needs to add more goals to his game to be considered a high-end Premier League player, too: the 22-year-old has started 24 games this term but found the net only three times, and he has yet to get into double figures in any league campaign as a professional.
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For now, though, Zaha is simply enjoying playing again at the club where he feels most at home. He has been one of the chief beneficiaries of Pardew’s installation as Palace boss, his confidence restored and his football doing the talking once more. "I will smile when I need to," Zaha responded to his manager's prods in March. "I am smiling now, definitely."
With Manchester United nervously looking over their shoulder at Liverpool four points and one place behind them, the club’s fans and staff will be hoping that the man who was arguably their biggest failed transfer in the last few years doesn't come back to harm their Champions League prospects on Saturday.