Along with a proud tradition of producing home grown talent, Manchester United especially in the Sir Alex Ferguson era preferred to buy younger players as opposed to established older stars. There are a number of exceptions, most recently of course Robin Van Persie but by and large the club likes to buy so called rough uncut diamonds and polish them to suit the exacting needs of the football club. So it was somewhat fitting that the last player bought in the Sir Alex era would be the young and upcoming Wilfried Zaha.
Dazet Wilfried Armel Zaha was born in Abidjan, Ivory Coast and moved to England with his family when he was 4 years old. It wasn’t long before he was part of the Crystal Palace youth set up, joining them in 2005.
He made his senior team bow in March, 2010 and established himself in the first team the next season chalking up 44 appearances for the Eagles and winning the Club’s Young Player of the Year award.
The 2011-12 season was another successful one for Zaha as not only did he once again secure Palace’s Young Player of the Year award but also went one better and won the Football League Young Player of the Year. This was also the season where he impressed in a 2-1 victory over Manchester United in the League Cup.
In what was his last season for the club, Zaha was pivotal in the club’s promotion to the Premier League. Having been bought by United in January and loaned back to Palace he played a crucial role in their playoff semi-final and final wins and added the PFA Championship Player of the Year to the list of individual honours.
Eligible for both Ivory Coast and England, Zaha has been capped by the Three Lions in both the Under-19 and Under-21 levels and even has a senior cap to his name, coming off the bench in a friendly against Sweden.
Like most modern day attacking footballers, Zaha has the ability to play on both flanks and in a central position. His playing style is a marriage of the muscularity you’d associate with an English footballer and the dribbling ability of a continental footballer. Very direct with the ball, he enjoys attacking defenders and is an absolute handful for any opposing full back if he can manufacture a one-on-one situation.
A concern about a lot of young players is if they are physically capable of handling the Premier League. Zaha, on this count has nothing to worry about. A muscular physical presence, he is certainly not going to be bullied by a lot of defenders. His power makes him hard to shake off the ball and also enhances his play with his back to goal, a characteristic that in turn increases his positional flexibility.
Another aspect of his game is that he is adept at shooting with both his feet. Rio Ferdinand has already spoken about his ability to get his shots off and it is a trait that’s been noticeable in both his Palace and his short but burgeoning United career. Whether cutting in-field from either flank or from a central position, he isn’t shy of letting fly. His goal scoring record though is not as good as he would like but more on that later.
Two of his most obvious strengths are his pace and skill. Although, football is a wonderful game full of intricacies, at times the difference between 2 teams in any given game can come down to a footrace between defender and attacker. Zaha has what commentators like to call genuine pace. As a side note, would the opposite of genuine pace be fake pace? Moving on from the various idiosyncrasies of football commentary, what I’m trying to say, in a fairly roundabout manner, is that Zaha is fast. An opposing full back would like to give himself a couple of yards as a head start in case the ball is knocked over his head which should theoretically nullify his pace. But this is where Zaha’s skill comes into play.
As mentioned above, Zaha loves to attack defenders. Given an opportunity Zaha enjoys driving into the opposing penalty area. Quick feet and commendable dribbling ability means that opposing defenders would be wary of diving into tackles against the young winger. Capable of producing the unexpected, Manchester United fans and the Premier League will soon be accustomed to the sight of Zaha dancing past players.
Although he’s been used mainly on the right hand side in United’s pre season tour, he is not your traditional old school, hug the touchline, shift the ball and whip a cross in kind of winger. He’s certainly not shy of going on the outside of the defender and getting a ball in early but he’s certainly not the type to stick to the touchline. He’s prone to cutting in-field from either flank. If he does continue to feature on the right, as he has predominantly done for United in their Asia tour, then Zaha could well be seen occupying the inside right channel more often than not, with the ever exuberant Rafael on the overlap.
His passing is another of his strengths. Linking up play whichever position he finds himself in, he certainly has a good pass on him which could certainly help him when facing packed defences while playing for United.
One aspect in which there is definite scope of improvement is his end product. As mentioned, Zaha gets his shots in but his goal scoring record so far leaves a lot to be desired. Zaha did get himself on the scoresheet for his new club with a last minute equalizer against Cerezo Osaka and while he was one of the most impressive United players on tour, he definitely should have more than a solitary goal to his credit. Not just his goal scoring, but his crossing as well can be erratic at times. Getting himself into good positions and wasting the chance is something that he has to work on. As you’d expect with a player of his age, consistency is another area in which he could improve. The step up from the Championship to the Premier League is deceptively big and one which talent alone will not be able to overcome.
“Wilfried is a fantastic talent. That is why you pay £15million for a kid. He is raw, with great individual skills and the early indications are that he is a hard worker. He wants to be a top footballer and he wants to improve. With those attributes, that desire and the influences he will have at this club, hopefully we will have a top player on our hands.”
-Rio Ferdinand (via thesun.co.uk)
“Give him the ball and all he wants to do is beat defenders and smash the ball into the back of the net. I think our crowds are going to love him.”
-Sir Bobby Charlton (via talksport.co.uk)
“I think the boy is so exciting he’s going to have a chance at Man United and I can see him getting in their first team and I genuinely mean that.”
-Ian Holloway (via metro.co.uk)
Obviously a sale isn’t on the cards anytime soon, but there was talk about him joining former club Palace on loan to gain Premier League experience. Both the player and club have signaled that Zaha will indeed be staying at United. With both Valenica and Nani having missed the tour, although they did feature in a friendly against Crewe recently, Zaha had a chance to impress the United hierarchy and he certainly took it. Whether or not, Moyes sees it fit to include Zaha in the starting line up against Wigan in the Community Shield and even Swansea in the opening fixture of the League is still to be seen. Either way, Zaha will definitely be in and around United’s first team not only for this season, but for a fair few more in my opinion.