Wilfried Zaha has tried almost every trick in the book to force his way out of Crystal Palace, so it was probably inevitable he would get around to actually playing well again at some point. Credit must go to both Zaha and his manager Roy Hodgson for refocusing on the task at hand after another summer of fervent speculation passed with a transfer failing to materialise.
This time, the 27-year-old hired “super agent” Pini Zahavi in an attempt to secure a move away from Selhurst Park, following on from the previous year when he handed in a formal transfer request while his brother, Judicael, went on Sky Sports News declaring it was Zaha’s “dream” to play for Arsenal, all the while pleading for Palace to let Wilfried go.
The Ivory Coast international signed a five-year contract worth £130,000-a-week in August 2018, just over a week after the transfer window closed and following another period of speculation in which Chelsea, Everton and Tottenham Hotspur were mooted as possible destinations, only for no formal bids to arrive. Zaha’s new agreement did not include a release clause, allowing Palace chairman Steve Parish to demand top dollar ever since — specifically, £80 million all due up front, a price and payment plan that put him beyond the reach of Arsenal last year.
A similar valuation this summer, despite the financial impact of COVID-19, meant Zahavi struggled to drum up any serious suitors before the agent’s short-term contract expired earlier this month, leaving Zaha facing the prospect of another season at a club he undeniably adores — having first joined them at the age of eight — yet probably feels he has outgrown.
Asked on Twitter by one supporter shortly after the window closed whether he should include him in his Fantasy Football team, Zaha replied: “No.”
Luckily, Hodgson felt different in reality. The 73-year-old sharpened Zaha’s mind for the challenges ahead by making him club captain, heightening the responsibility he feels to his teammates and switching him from a wide role to one as a centre-forward with licence to drift across the pitch. That tactical change simultaneously reduced the likelihood of Zaha disappearing to the periphery of matches, while also making it tougher for opponents to double up in an effort to nullify Palace’s most obvious creative threat.
The numbers speak for themselves. Zaha managed just four Premier League goals and three assists last season, but he already has five goals and one assist from six matches this term. It is his best-ever start to a campaign. Fulham were the latest victims on Saturday as Zaha produced a clever reverse pass for Jairo Riedewald to open the scoring at Craven Cottage before scoring himself, turning home Michy Batshuayi’s 63rd-minute cross from close range.
Zaha’s pace and penetration has long been key to Palace’s…