With an improved contract comes greater responsibilities, and it’s clear what Crystal Palace expect of Wilfried Zaha after handing him a £130k per-week deal during the summer.
The Ivory Coast international has been a fleeting talismanic presence throughout both of his spells with the South London club but now it’s a question of delivering in every game, earning his pay cheque by providing the consistency to take the Eagles to the next level – one where the threat of relegation is a mere noise in the background rather than the bellowing jukebox at centre-stage.
And with that has come a new role too, one that only further highlights Zaha’s intrinsic importance to the successes of Roy Hodgson’s team. This season, the explosive attacker has lined up exclusively as a centre-forward, playing off Christian Benteke in an attempt to get him that bit closer to the goal.
It’s a transition we’ve seen before with Zaha’s breed of wide forward – Cristiano Ronaldo moved more central when his pace dried up, while Marko Arnautovic provides a recent Premier League example – and the early signs are certainly encouraging. With two goals in three appearances, Zaha is one of just two players to have found the net for the Selhurst Park outfit this season and consequently their top scorer.
But scoring more goals doesn’t necessarily make you a better player, and doesn’t necessarily mean your impact on results is superior to before. There are countless ways to influence games and while goals will always grab headlines, one moment of brilliance across isn’t always worth the relative anonymity of the remainder of the ninety minutes .
That’s the overarching concern with Zaha’s recent realignment in the Palace front-line – yes, he’s scoring goals, but he’s not taking the game to the opposition in the way we’ve become accustomed to over the last few seasons.
The statistics alone are evidence of that. While his goal involvement per game for 2018/19 has nearly doubled from last term – albeit over an incredibly small sample – Zaha’s actually taking less efforts at goal, creating less chances and completing less dribbles. The latter statistic is particularly worrying; the ability to drive and surge forward on the counter-attack was so important to Palace’s game-plan last season, yet the 25-year-old has struggled to provide it in a more central capacity.
Admittedly, Zaha lined up at centre-forward increasingly towards the end of last season too, but the dynamics of the system have significantly changed. Rather than being part of an incredibly fluid, nomadic pair with a player on his wavelength in Andros Townsend that obliged the midfielders to burst forward in support, Zaha now seems more regimented and restricted in the positions he takes up, largely sticking to the inside left channel in a bid to bounce off Benteke’s imposing frame.
Although that’s the area of the pitch where the Palace star is at his most effective, chiefly when cutting inside onto his right foot, there’s an important difference between arriving in it and simply occupying it -one keeps defenders guessing; the other makes their job infinitely easier.
It’s that subtle variation which seems to be reducing Zaha’s influence, allowing the opposition to naturally encircle him. Even though the 5 foot 11 star has often been forced to deal with two or three players closing him down, such levels of attention tend to create space for team-mates in dangerous areas.
Now though, Zaha finds himself standing between full-back and centre-half, susceptible to being squeezed out without pulling the opposition lines one way or the other. He’s more easily contained, even if the Palace academy product has proved it only takes one moment of poor concentration for him to get on the score sheet.
Benteke’s woeful form of course doesn’t help and the Belgian is yet to forge any kind of meaningful partnership with Zaha. But that’s precisely the point here; if Hodgson is to persist with Benteke, would Zaha not be more effective peeling inside from the wing as part of a front three rather than trying to play off the out-of-form front-man? Why try to accommodate the misgivings of one player by moving another out of position, in a role that reduces the impact of his strongest traits? The logic seems a little flawed.
So, Palace fans, where do you think Zaha should be lining up? Let us know by voting below…