When Wilfried Zaha returned to boyhood club Crystal Palace in summer 2013, most assumed the one-time Manchester United signing would never get another chance at the elite end of the Premier League table.
His Old Trafford tenure certainly didn’t give much evidence otherwise; just two league appearances in six months, before an underwhelming loan spell at relegation-bound Cardiff City and his subsequent return to Selhurst Park. Whatever David Moyes saw in the explosive wideman, he clearly didn’t like, despite his predecessor – the great Sir Alex Ferguson – being convinced enough to spend an eight-figure sum on a then-Championship player just a matter of months prior.
But Zaha returned to Palace with a bang, netting four times and playing a pivotal role in the Eagles recording a tenth-place Premier League finish during the first season of his second spell. His output has remained a continuous subject of debate, but Zaha’s overall form and contributions have been on an upward trajectory since his switch back to south London. Now aged 24 and verging upon traditionally peak years for a winger, the Ivory Coast international appears to be edging back towards the big time – with Spurs repeatedly mooted as potential suitors since last summer. The latest murmurings come courtesy of Bleacher Report’s Dean Jones.
“Wilfried Zaha should have been on the verge of greatness when he joined Manchester United in 2013, but the move did not go to plan, and within two years, he was back at boyhood club Crystal Palace.
“That could have proved a career setback, but he responded with consistent good form for the Eagles, which has put him back in the shop window. Palace know it is only a matter of time before a big offer comes along, and Tottenham Hotspur are set to test his loyalty this summer.”
Dean Jones, Bleacher Report 2017
On the surface, Zaha seems more like a squad addition than a signing who can take Tottenham to the next level. Six goals and seven assists in 26 Premier League outings is a decent return for an attacker plying his trade with a side who’ve been battling relegation all season, but not the kind of return that suggests Zaha would revolutionise Spurs’ starting XI or make them ore clinical in the final third. For starters, Harry Kane, Dele Alli, Heung-min Son and Christian Eriksen – Mauricio Pochettino’s four main attacking options – have all scored equal or more goals than him this season, albeit in a considerably more successful team.
Wingers are inevitably judged upon how much they produce, but Zaha’s about much more than that. He’s prepared to roll his sleeves up and commit to the more thankless side of what Premier League wingers are all about; driving their team up the pitch on the counter-attack, drawing fouls to win free kicks in crucial areas of the pitch and closing down opposition full-backs off the ball. Rather tellingly, he’s averaged the most tackles per match – a staggering 2.6 – of any wideman in the division this season.
That suits Mauricio Pochettino’s philosophy of industrious yet creative football perfectly, and the other obvious asset Zaha offers Spurs is his scintillating pace – one of the only weapons the White Hart Lane gaffer lacks in his current arsenal. Eriksen can unlock defences with the ball, Alli can provide goals from midfield and Heung-min Son can glide through tight areas, but no player truly trusted by Pochettino can stretch defences, create width and expose teams so quickly on the break in the same way.
But Zaha’s true value to Tottenham Hotspur may well lay in his performances against elite opposition, something that has become particularly prevalent during the 2016/17 campaign and most recently during a stunning performance to silence table-toppers Chelsea last weekend.
To say Spurs aren’t in second place on merit would be unfair, but it’s certainly not a consequence of their results against top six rivals, winning two and losing three of eight. Chelsea’s record is similar; this title race has been mostly decided by consistency against the rest of the top flight. But with both Manchester clubs growing stronger, Liverpool progressing under Jurgen Klopp and Arsenal expected to make wholesale changes in the summer, next term could well come down to who dominates the mini-league at the top of the table.
That could squeeze Spurs out of the picture, but also highlights why Zaha could prove so vital. 43% of his assists this season have come against top six teams, but it’s the consistency he’s shown against such opposition that truly stands out, both with and without the ball. Five successful dribbles per match is a phenomenal return, whilst those 3.3 fouls won double or even triple in importance when put in the context of a top-of-the-table six-pointer – where one set piece expertly delivered into the box can make all the difference.
Likewise, three tackles per match highlights Zaha’s commitment to the cause. In fact, from the seven games in question this season, he’s failed to provide less than two tackles in ninety minutes just once. To give some context, no Spurs player has averaged more than 2.8 tackles this season, whilst the highest return from an attacking player is Dele Alli with 1.4.
Of course, the counter-argument is that the setups of these matches flatter Zaha statistically. Palace average just 48% possession per match and from those seven games against the top six in which Zaha has largely excelled, they’ve averaged 6% less. That gives him more room to operate on the counter and obliges him to make more tackles.
But to say Tottenham won’t find themselves in similar positions next season would be naive – they saw just 45% of the ball during a 2-2 draw against Manchester City at the Etihad Stadium in January – and it’s Zaha’s industry that could make him such a success at White Hart Lane. We’ve seen Pochettino mercilessly cull countless players who couldn’t meet what he demands in workload; Zaha, on the other hand, has the potential to raise the bar for his accomplices in attack.
“We would love to keep Wilfried. We will sit down and talk to him as soon as we’re safe and I’m very hopeful of doing so”
Palace chairman Steve Parish
Of course, it’s not as simple as Spurs putting some money on the table and Zaha moving from south to north London. Palace have plans to offer him a new contract that would underline his importance to the club. But it feels like Zaha is on the verge of proving Sir Alex Ferguson right and David Moyes wrong by moving back to the top end of the table one way or another. Tottenham would be wise to act on his efficiency against top six opposition before one of their divisional rivals beats them to it.