Watch the feet, not the eyes, they say. But you can watch the feet all you like and it won’t help you much.
Wilfried Zaha is a special footballer and there are few like him. That’s what led the legendary Alex Ferguson to sign him for Manchester United. But the disastrous tenure of David Moyes, did more than set the Red Devils back a few years. It also set Zaha back, too.
Declaring for the Ivory Coast instead of becoming an England regular is often seen as betraying either a lack of ambition or a lack of belief that he would make it back to the top of the Premier League again, though in reality it might just be the choice of a man who feels more Ivorian than English: after all, international football isn’t about career choices, it’s about emotion and passion, theoretically anyway.
But he almost has managed to claw his way back. He may not be on his way to the top six in January, but he’ll be there soon enough if he keeps his form high.
That’s because he’s a precious commodity: a tricky wide player. It sounds like such players should be ten a penny, but they aren’t. Sure, there are plenty of players with pace, but the likes of Leroy Sane and Mohamed Salah are showing the benefits of their pace to get in behind defences, ready for through balls or even cut-backs, having lost their markers.
They can beat players, too, of course. So too can Raheem Sterling and Sadio Mane – there’s a theme appearing, Liverpool and Manchester City are the top-scoring teams in the Premier League this season – but few can do it like Zaha.
watched this clip of Zaha putting Ashley Young on toast about 25 straight times and it's still magic pic.twitter.com/mZozIRjbPi
— amadí (@amadoit__) January 8, 2018
In fact, he’s elevated it to an art form. It’s one thing to beat a player with a stepover and a turn of pace, but doing it in a tight space with little to no forward momentum to speak of is the purest form of beating your marker.
And the more you watch it, the more you wonder how he can do such a thing. Ashley Young, a player who’s been something of a revelation at full-back for Manchester United this season, wasn’t in a bad position; on his toes and not too tight, he was ready to get a toe on the ball and poke it away from danger.
But he looked at the feet.
A simple stepover was enough to bewilder the former United defender. But sometimes they do that. Just temporarily bamboozling a defender with a stepover doesn’t mean you’ve beaten him. Only stunned him for a second – and Young duly recovered. He came back at Zaha.
But the Ivory Coast international knows what he’s doing. He understands geometry and momentum, he’s done the sums and factored in body weight, possibly even wind direction. And Young is left to contemplate the futility of intellectual thought for a second time in a matter of seconds. This time there can be no recovery, no chance of redemption. And, with Young slightly off balance, Zaha knows what he’s achieved, and with the same timing with which he’s performed the stepover previously, he gives his opponent the coup de grace.
Like in a kids’ film, where the final blow is administered with a featherweight touch, Zaha ends it with the slightest push, sending the Manchester United player to the grass, and Palace on their way.
There’s no one quite like Zaha for such a move in the Premier League.
His pace and his uncanny strength are obvious, but they are not unique. What’s special, though, is that ability in tight spaces, that flair for getting it done from a standing start. And that’s what any team in the Premier League could be doing with adding to their ranks; that ability to create something from nothing.
It’s January and the Manchester clubs are fighting over Alexis Sanchez. That means there are three clubs – Manchester United, Manchester City and Arsenal – who could be forgiven for making a money-no-object offer for a man with a special talent.
It won’t be long before he claws his way back to the top. And if United were to go back in for a player they’ve seen up close before, perhaps they’d be back at the top, too. They’re on the same trajectory – surely they have to meet again.
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