Wilfried Zaha has, on average, been fouled 2.8 times per game in the four appearances he has made so far this season for Crystal Palace, and during his side’s win over Huddersfield on Saturday it all got a bit too much for the Ivory Coast international.
Zaha scored a sublime solo goal at the John Smith’s Stadium, cutting in between two Huddersfield players from the right-hand side before firing into the far corner of Jonas Lossl’s net.
It was a goal of the kind of quality we have come to expect from the 25-year-old over the past few seasons after his return to Selhurst Park from a nightmare stint at Manchester United. However, with great talent comes greater attention on a player, and not just from fans and the media.
Premier League defenders have clearly begun to target Zaha with tough tackles and a bit of the rough treatment. In Palace’s trip to Watford a couple of weeks ago, Frenchman Etienne Capoue should really have been sent off as he stamped down on the Achilles of Zaha directly in front of referee Anthony Taylor, who thought a yellow card was sufficient.
Then in the cagey clash with Huddersfield, Terriers man Mathias Jorgensen put in a late challenge on the Ivorian which was also punished with a yellow card by the same referee, although this time the decision was probably correct.
Zaha though decided to take the law into his own hands and reacted two minutes later by leaving a bit on Florent Hadergjonaj, for which Zaha was also booked. With some strong words in his post-match interview, he told the BBC that he felt a player would have to break his leg before being sent off and that the treatment he was receiving made him not want to dribble with the ball and caused him to lose his head.
However, no matter how bad the two tackles against Watford and Huddersfield were, Zaha must learn that retaliation is not the answer. Football is a contact sport and it is a given that the most skilful players will be the ones who are fouled the most as defenders do anything they can to stop them, often under clear instructions from their coaching staff.
This is certainly not a new phenomenon and it is not exclusive to Zaha either, so he must expect the tackles to continue flying in, if anything his outburst will only serve to make things worse. In this area of his game, he could learn a lot from Chelsea’s wizard Eden Hazard.
In 2015, he told the Independent that he welcomed the fouls as it showed he was having a good game and that the defenders couldn’t get near him (a common occurrence with the way he is currently playing). Hazard, who rarely gets injured, also said that his judo training as a child had helped him to fall safely and that he is used to taking knocks.
In fact, the Belgium captain has been fouled even more than Zaha this season with an average of three per game, according to WhoScored, but his performance against Cardiff was one of his best in a blue shirt, proving that he really does up his game to punish the defenders trying to take him out.
Flair players like Hazard and Zaha light up the Premier League, but the standard of defending in England’s top division is another reason why we love it so much and there is no sign of this changing any time soon.
To fulfil his potential and become the top player he has the talent to be, Zaha must stop worrying about what referees or the FA are doing and start working on his own game so that he can punish defenders who try to kick him like Hazard does.