There has perhaps never been a Premier League club so dependent on the influence of one player as Crystal Palace are on Wilfried Zaha. Sure, even Chelsea and Liverpool have their respective talismans, the players that grab games by the scruff of the neck and turn top-class teams into world-class teams, but for the Eagles the differences are staggering.
Since the start of last season, Palace haven’t won a single point in the Premier League from twelve attempts in Zaha’s absence and managed just four goals, a pathetic one every three outings. Statistically then, Palace aren’t just producing relegation form without Zaha – the ultimate fear for this season as well as the last one – they’re actually the worst performers in Premier League history. Worse than Mick McCarthy’s Sunderland, worse than current lowest points record holders Derby County.
So what do you do, when a player so seemingly intrinsic to immediate results and long-term survival isn’t performing to the levels he should be? It’s worth pointing out that, despite his reputation as one of the most dangerous players outside the Big Six, Zaha’s output has never been that extraordinary; nine goals in 28 appearances last season is his greatest haul to date in the Premier League.
But even so, three goals from 14 this year is disappointingly low, especially after the Ivory Coast international signed a huge contract in the summer. That was supposed to elevate Zaha’s game to an even higher level.
Not that this is an indictment on Zaha’s ability, more that his slump in form highlights the wider problem at Palace; Roy Hodgson, perhaps through no real fault of his own after losing some key personnel over the summer in Yohan Cabaye and Ruben Loftus-Cheek, is overseeing a dysfunctional side, a side that can only really operate to one game-plan of counter-attacking football that, paradoxically, makes Palace a much tougher test for the top sides in the division rather than the calibre of club they’ll need to beat consistently to ensure survival this year.
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The other issue, of course, is how dependent on Zaha Palace have become. The club are sleepwalking towards relegation, assuming his quality alone will be enough to make sure they finish on the right side of the drop line, but there are simply no guarantees. In any case, how long is that situation truly sustainable?
Perhaps then, it’s time to start looking at Zaha in a different way; rather than placing all their hopes on the winger’s talismanic abilities, Palace should be considering how they can use Zaha’s value to turn a one-man team into an eleven man team, a team that can beat different types of opponent and play in different ways because it functions properly.
Maybe in an ideal world that can be achieved with Zaha as part of the side, but with what money? After spending just £10million in the summer, clearly Palace aren’t in a position to start buying their way to mid-table safety. Moreover, it feels almost as if, regardless of who they could bring in, the psychology of the team won’t change all that much – it will always be a case of Zaha or bust while the 26-year-old is still around at Selhurst Park.
We know Crystal Palace’s valuation of Zaha was £75million prior to his new contract and while that bait couldn’t attract a bite from one of the Big Six clubs in the summer, it’s perhaps the kind of lavish fee you’d expect a team to cough up during the ever-problematic January window.
Whether there’s quite as much demand for Zaha remains another matter – Chelsea still need a dynamic forward to ease the scoring burden on Eden Hazard – but if Palace were to find a buyer, £75million should be enough for the club to build a fully-functioning team.
In my estimations, there are two crucial types of player Palace currently lack. First and foremost, a centre-forward who can be depended on to score goals if provided with the right kind of service. Christian Benteke just hasn’t been able to do that over the last 18 months and after suffering a serious injury, who knows when the Belgium international will be firing at the rate of his first season in South London.
Secondly though, Palace desperately need a midfielder who can make things happen when the team are in possession, rather than relying on some technical ingenuity from Zaha or Andros Townsend on the other side.
To some extent, Max Meyer offers a solution – only Zaha and Townsend have averaged more key passes per match than the German this season and he leads the squad for Premier League assists. But his totals aren’t hugely inspiring either, 1.1 and 2 respectively, and it’s also a case of a midfielder who can orchestrate from deep like Cabaye did during his three seasons at Selhurst Park. Right now, James McArthur, Luka Milivojevic, Cheikhou Kouyate and Jeffrey Schlupp offer plenty of blood and thunder, but no real vision or precision.
On top of that, Zaha would need someone to directly replace Zaha – an Eagles return for Victor Moses has already been mooted in the press. But if you know where to look, £75million should be more than enough to bring in three players who would be pivotal in transforming Palace into a truly functional side, from a team that pins its entire hopes on the top-class ability of one player to a side that shares the burden across several.
No doubt, it would be a huge risk, and it’s rarely a case of instant success after slotting three new players into a team that has been together for some time now.
But what are the alternatives for Palace? Sack Hodgson and hope another manager can get something a little more out of a fundamentally flawed group of players? Close your eyes, wait until May and hope Zaha’s done enough by then to keep Palace up for another season? Both of those strategies are risky too.
What would you do, Palace fans?