Wilf Zaha is a player who divides opinion. Some think he’s a top level player, a player capable of playing for any club at any level. Others see him as all sizzle, no steak. An immensely talented player who’s fun to watch but doesn’t produce enough.
Four goals and five assists this past season is a poor return for a player of his talents, especially given everything runs through him at Palace. There are extenuating circumstances to that disappointing season, given he wanted to leave last summer and was forced to stay after Palace against his wishes.
Over the course of his career, he’s tallied 57 goals and 70 assists in 362 games for Palace, that’s a pretty good return given the distinct lack of quality team-mates he’s had over his time there. You do wonder what he’d be able to achieve surrounded by players of his own level, or even better. He’s definitely a player deserving of a move to a bigger stage, but what size of stage?
Let’s not ignore the fact that Zaha has spent the majority of his career under uninspiring managers as well. A series of gaffers who’ve never fully unleashed him. What could he do under a manager who’s not Tony Pulis, Sam Allardyce or Roy Hodgson? What could he do at a club with a clear plan, and a long term fixture at manager? Palace have 16 managers, including caretaker spells, in the 11 years since Zaha made his debut. (Sidenote: Did you know that the last Palace manager to oversee more than 129 games was Steve Coppell, who left the club in 1993?)
Zaha has spent his entire career, save for one season, at Palace. That one season was split between Manchester United, who signed him for a reported £15million, and Cardiff City, where United loaned him for half a season.
He’s been labeled a United flop as a result, and that’s unfair. The truth is, he was never given a chance there.
Zaha made a total of four appearances, including the Community Shield, for United. His entire onfield career at Old Trafford tallied 166 minutes of playing time. What impact could he really be expected to make? Let’s not forget that he joined United in the summer Sir Alex Ferguson retired and was replaced by David Moyes. He was signed by Ferguson in January of 2013, and then loaned back to Palace. He signed for one manager, but got stuck with another.
Moyes was out of his depth at United, and he never gave Zaha a real chance. He shoved him out on loan to Cardiff, before getting fired himself a couple of months later.
Under a manager more capable of developing him, a manager who could have shown patience and allowed him to develop, Zaha could well have been a success. We’ll never know.
What we do know is that Zaha is capable of more. He’s capable of better. He’s deserving of better.
Palace seem set to let him go this summer, if they get an offer that suits them. They seem to be looking at replacement with Eberechi Eze, Ismaila Sarr and others strongly linked with moves to Selhurst Park this summer.
The problem is that Palace will still want a sizeable sum for him, and most of the clubs who could afford the fee don’t seem to be in the market for a wide player. Zaha seems to favour a move to Arsenal, but with Pepe, Nelson, Martinelli and Saka all at the club, and Willian looking likely, they don’t have a spot for him.
With that in mind, here are five potential landing spots for Zaha this summer.
Let’s start with an obvious one. Everton tried to sign Zaha last summer but couldn’t agree a deal with Palace who were holding out for a ridiculous offer. Given Everton’s struggles with a lack of creativity this past season, they may well look at the Palace wideman again.
Zaha would be a natural fit for how Carlo Ancelotti wants to play. An out to in type winger, he’d slot in on the left hand side of Everton’s 4-4-2 and, with Richarlison, Calvert-Lewin and potentially a revitalized Moise Kean as options upfront, Zaha would have better strikers to create for than at any other point in his career. With Alex Iwobi potentially slotting in on the right hand side, Everton would have a potent, versatile attack.
The fee shouldn’t be a problem for Everton, nobody has wasted more money than Everton over the past few years so they’re not short of cash. Everton, despite their trophy drought, are a bigger club than Palace and they have far loftier ambitions. They also have an all-time great manager. Ancelotti would be easily the best manager Zaha has played under, and that could also inspire the player to really produce his best form.
Less obvious and a different fit, but Zaha would be a really good addition for Leicester. Brendan Rodgers has favoured the 4-1-4-1 formation and in Wilf Ndidi he has his holding midfielder, in Youri Tielemans, James Maddison and Harvey Barnes he has three of the four more attack minded midfielders to support lone frontman Jamie Vardy.
Zaha can play right wing or left wing, as can Harvey Barnes. Rodgers could use them on either flank, and have them switch throughout games to cause different issues for the opposition. That wide role is the one big hole in Leicester’s 11, and while they do have some long term needs in terms of successors to Vardy and Schmeichel, an upgrade on Evans and a backup at leftback, they could commit all their resources to adding a wide player this summer.
They’ve been linked with Trincao of Barcelona, Dwight McNeil of Burnley and David Brooks of Bournemouth. All of those players are younger than Zaha, and none are on his level at this point. If they wanted to maximise the last couple of seasons with Vardy, Zaha might be a good option for them. Brendan Rodgers, despite his flaws, remains a very creative attacking coach. He could unlock Zaha and get the most out of him, which could be enough to fire Leicester to a Champions League berth.
Zaha is not a Jorge Mendes client so that, and the potential fee, make this one a long shot BUT consider a front 3 of Adama and Zaha flanking Raul Jimenez. Sure, it contains two players in Adama and Zaha who sometimes flatter to deceive but if it clicked?
Wolves have put together back to back seasons of impressive progress since returning to the top flight but there does seem to be a ceiling on this current group. They might need to think outside the box to take the next step and achieve their goal of a top 4 finish.
Zaha would be a statement of intent and his work ethic and physical capacity would likely fit well under Nuno, who demands a lot from his players.
Playing with Adama, the pair could share the ball carrying load and that might benefit both players. Jimenez, Neves, Moutinho and Dendoncker would all represent some of the best teammates Zaha has ever had, they all players on his level or above, Wolves seems like the type of environment that would suit Zaha.
Wolves are a cash rich club, and Zaha is a player who would undoubtedly improve them.
This one would obviously be dependent on Dortmund selling Sancho. That doesn’t appear likely at this point, but if Manchester United can find enough money down the back of the sofa, under the rug and behind the sideboard, then maybe Dortmund will be in the market for a wide player.
They’re currently chasing Memphis Depay, but that deal seems to be independent of any Sancho sale. Zaha would offer the same trickier, unpredictability and game stretching ability that Sancho brings. The Bundesliga would be perfect for Zaha, it’s the type of place he could really thrive and show his real talent. Attacking players are given the platform to showcase their ability under Lucien Favre and Zaha would likely enjoy playing for the Swiss coach.
It would be quite amusing if United bought Sancho and facilitated Dortmund signing two of their former players in return. Depay and Zaha could compare notes over their spells at United, and they’d provide Dortmund with a potent and unpredictable attacking duo.
Big club? There’s not many bigger than AC Milan. The Italian giants are attempted to rejoin the elite at the top of Serie A and take back their place in the Champions League. They seem to have money available this summer, but they also seem to have players they’re willing to part with.
Under Stefano Pioli they have played a 4-2-3-1 but have often been let down by a lack of quality in the wide positions. Zaha could potentially solve that, and his style of play coupled his his pace and physical make-up could see him thrive in Serie A. The slower paced nature of the game is a stark contrast to the Premier League, but if he can add an urgency and a purpose to Milan, Zaha could prove to be one of the most productive players in Italy.
Milan might struggle to come up with the asking price, but players like Lucas Paqueta, Samu Castillejo or Ricardo Rodriguez could potentially be included to reduce the cash amount.
Milan and Dortmund are two of Europe’s biggest clubs, and would satisfy Zaha’s wish to play for a top club. Whether either would show interest in him is unknown. The only club linked to him from a Premier League point of view is Everton, but are they good enough to interest him? The two midland clubs can at least offer teams that have impressed in recent years.
Zaha finds himself in an unusual situation this summer. Too good for his current team, too good for half the league but maybe not good enough for the elite clubs. The remaining group may not be able to afford him in the post Covid universe. Where he ends up is going to be interesting to follow.