Pablo Zabaleta has been West Ham’s greatest pound-for-pound signing of recent years. Brought in on a free transfer from Manchester City, the tough-tackling Argentine is one of the club’s most consistent performers, a natural leader and a firm favourite amongst the fan base. But he’s also 33 years old.
Manuel Pellegrini admitted at the start of December that Zabaleta wouldn’t be able to play all seven games throughout the month and that has already seen winger-forward Michail Antonio fill in at No.2. The Englishman grabbed a goal in the ad hoc role against Cardiff City, but he’s hardly a sustainable long-term alternative for the Hammers.
Down in South London, meanwhile, Aaron Wan-Bissaka is making a name for himself at Crystal Palace. Since making his debut last season, the 21-year-old has emerged as one of the most exciting young defenders in the Premier League, and the emphasis here is on the word defender – despite making the move back from the wing to earn a place in the Palace first team, he’s fantastic in one-on-one situations and times his tackles with perfection.
Palace’s shock 3-2 win over Manchester City on Saturday provided one of the most convincing examples yet of Wan-Bissaka’s exciting talent and enormous potential. Left winger Leroy Sane is no doubt one of the Premier League’s top attackers but could hardly get into the game at the Etihad stadium as Wan-Bissaka made five tackles, two interceptions, two clearances and one vital goal-saving block.
The youngster showed a brief glimpse of his attacking abilities as well, galloping forward to create one chance, and if Wan-Bissaka can make those offerings at the other end on a more consistent basis, he’ll no doubt emerge as one of the most well-rounded full-backs in around.
For West Ham though, the youngster’s emphasis on defending will be key. Andriy Yarmolenko, Marko Arnautovic and Felipe Anderson are clearly fantastic offensive talents, but lack industry and often leave gaps behind them. Wan-Bissaka represents the necessary protection and balance West Ham need for their forwards to fully flourish.
Of course, his arrival would be an immense disappointment for summer signing Ryan Fredericks, but he hardly seemed capable of challenging for a starting slot at the beginning of the campaign and is currently sidelined until the new year. If West Ham can convince Palace to sell during the next few transfer windows, Wan-Bissaka will prove a very shrewd long-term investment as Zabaleta’s successor.