Manchester United finally completed a deal to bring Crystal Palace winger Wilfried Zaha to Old Trafford in the summer after he signed a five-and-a-half-year-contract which will come into effect at the start of next season after he finishes off the current campaign in south London, but the timing of the switch itself strikes me as odd – is manager Sir Alex Ferguson simply legacy shopping now?
The 20-year-old England international, born in Abidjan in the Ivory Coast, has been linked with practically every top club in the Premier League over the course of the past year or so. That’s what the newspaper rumour mill does, it identifies one player and then starts off its own ‘saga’, with Liverpool, Manchester City, Chelsea and Arsenal all involved at one point or another. It’s both tiresome and dull but it distorts the truth too as it misleads whether there was ever any genuine concrete interest in the player, which as far as I can see, apart from United’s bid this January, there wasn’t.
Zaha was named the Football League Young Player of the Year last season and this prompted United to ‘enter the race’ and seal a deal that will see them pay approximately £10m up front and a further £5m with add-ons. Ferguson sounded somewhat reserved on the signing, most likely because the fans won’t get to see him up close right away, telling reporters: “We like to sign players with potential. We develop players and that’s been proven many times. Hopefully the boy enjoys it here.”
Given that Arsene Wenger stated that Arsenal were looking at Zaha but denied ever making a bid, while Liverpool are firmly after Tom Ince and neither Chelsea or Manchester City showed a sniff in months, you have to question why Ferguson felt the need to tie up a deal right now – is it because if they run the danger of Palace getting promoted, his price doubles? That would seem to be the only logical explanation, and this way they get the best of both worlds.
The form of the club’s wingers this term, though, will have worried Ferguson no end and it seems as if Nani’s time at Old Trafford may finally be coming to an end. The 26-year-old has made just seven league appearances, only four of them from the start so far, featuring in just 12 games across all competitions. It seems as if the 71-year-old boss has grown weary of the Portuguese’s inconsistencies, ranging from the brilliant to the abject with consummate ease.
It would seem a shame if Nani is discarded to the scrapheap because when fit and on form, he offers an end product both in terms of goals and assists that neither Antonio Valencia or Ashley Young can match, but it’s got to that stage in the season where a catch-22 situation has developed – Nani needs games to get match fit to be of any use, but an extended run is out of the question at the moment given that the club are chasing silverware at both home and abroad, and now is not the time to tinker. He’s lost the manager’s faith and it could be a simple one in, one out deal in the summer.
It’s not as if Valencia has inspired any confidence either, and the 27-year-old Ecuadorian seems to be enjoying a crisis of form and his worst spell out wide since joining the club. Unsure of when to take on and beat his man or come inside and look for the pass, Valencia has been well below par, looking every bit the one-dimensional attacker his critics say he is, with Young on the other flank only being saved by his versatility.
First with Chris Smalling, then Phil Jones and now Wilfried Zaha, Manchester United appear to be taking the old Old Firm’s approach to transfers now, namely buying up young players of real potential so that their rivals cannot get near them. At the moment, there is no real need for him, but that could swiftly change in the future come May, with Ferguson set to reshuffle his pack and freshen up an ageing squad in several key areas.
The purchase of Robin van Persie in the summer was a rare indulgence on his behalf, but the Zaha deal shows that the Scot still has an eye on the future and the smooth handing over of the baton to his successor and while it might look strange to move for Zaha now given the lack of competition for his signature, in the long-term, it could save them millions.