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Why didn’t it work out for Wilfried Zaha at United?

In a strange way it was quite reassuring to see Wilfried Zaha return to Crystal Palace for good. Having joined Manchester United just over 2 years ago, the winger ended up spending more time away from Old Trafford during an unhappy, thorny stint that did nothing but hamper his progression as a footballer.

The South London club is a place of comfort to Zaha. After a brief moment of capricious excitement over the prospect of playing at the Theatre of Dreams under Sir Alex, the winger has come to terms with the fact that his future lies with the club that initially propelled him into the global spotlight. Wilf has gone back home – and that shouldn’t upset Manchester United fans one bit.

With that said, seeing one of English footballs most promising young talents walk away from Old Trafford in a strop does have a somber feeling attached to it. Break ups are never easy, and this one has that horrible ‘I promise, it’s not you, it’s me’ excuse written all over it. Some things are not meant to be – Wilfried Zaha being a Manchester United player is an example of a relationship that looked so appealing only to turn nastily sour in a short space of time.

But why did this happen?

Crystal Palace’s journey to the playoff final in 2013 wouldn’t have even become airborne if it wasn’t for Zaha. The winger was an integral, lethal, and ultimately indispensable part of Ian Holloway’s charge towards Premier League football in the latter stages of the 2012-13 season – ending in a 1-0 Wembley win over favourites Watford – Kevin Phillips took all the headlines that afternoon, but the keystone to that win was Wilfried Zaha. Without his energy, raw pace and confidence throughout that scorching afternoon it’s hard to imagine Palace emerging victorious. After 105 minutes of scrappy but somewhat exuberant football the winger was bellowing at his teammates, demanding they gave him the ball at every possible opportunity.

This was the hallmark of a player brimming with energy and desire to win, boasting that ruthless and slightly arrogant edge. It seemed like the Premier League champions would be a suitable place for a player whose level of quality seemed far too high for the Championship.

After a pre-season tour where he was arguably the brightest spark under David Moyes he was given another chance to strut his stuff at Wembley during the Community Shield win over Wigan. Once again, we saw a player with confidence and ability terrorise Wigan’s left hand side in a convincing victory. Not everything he tried came off. In fact, a lot of what he tried to do left you murmuring things like ‘ah, nearly’ and ‘ooh unlucky’, but the desire was there. He was a rough diamond that (with the right treatment) could develop into a key asset for the newly appointed Scot.

So following such a promising start, it seems almost baffling how nearly 18 months have passed since that sunny afternoon at Wembley with Wilfried Zaha only making 2 Premier League appearances in a Manchester United shirt.

The superlatives attached to young Wilf prior to his disastrous spell at Old Trafford suggest that those who keenly watched him were convinced he was destined for the highest of the highs – with no alternative being even a remote possibility – unfortunately, those claiming he was ‘just as exciting as when Ronaldo first joined’ have some explaining to do. I (thankfully) am not one of those people. But you know who you are.

So somewhere along the line something has gone terribly wrong. From (apparently) being just as exciting to watch as Ronaldo, he now has to provide ammunition for Marouane Chamakh and Yaya Sanogo. A thankless task.

A large portion of the blame needs to go in David Moyes’ direction when it comes to Wilfried Zaha’s downfall. His failure to include such a bright prospect is another example of his failure to endorse the exciting brand of football advocated by Sir Alex Ferguson, instead opting for extreme pragmatism – or in other words, football that is not only completely bereft of any excitement but downright painful to watch – it actually makes a lot of sense when you think about it. Zaha, a man notorious for his trickery and flair, was never going to be a Moyes player.

It’s easy to blame Moyes. I do it all the time. Even in non-footballing situations. But a lot of the blame needs to be thrown in the direction of Zaha himself. He is a culprit of the common attitude problem that is rife amongst young English players; once a youngster has his name in all the major newspapers and gets a nice wad of cash in his pocket he then seems to assume that this signifies astronomical success, and fails to push on because of it.

It’s a sad trend that is rife in English football – players like Ravel Morrison, John Bostock, Josh Mchechran and Nathan Chalobah were all said to be the ‘next big thing in English football’, but all have failed to make the grade – it’s a real shame and it’s one of the main reasons why England fails to produce the same level and quantity of young talent as opposed to Germany and Spain.

The mind-set changes rapidly amongst many young players once they’re recognised; this recognition is the ultimate cause of their fall from grace. They lose concentration, they lose respect for older players, and they fail to acknowledge what a volatile and competitive environment they’re in, subsequently ending up at Swindon or something. And although it pains me to say it, Wilfried Zaha is an example of a very promising young English footballer who failed to remain grounded once thrown into the footballing spotlight.

It has already been established that Wilfried Zaha wasn’t much of a Moyes player; it’s fair to make the claim that he isn’t a Van Gaal player either. The Dutchman favours a 3-5-2 system or a 4-4-2 diamond, both of which rely on the fullbacks to provide width. The methods put in place don’t rely on attacking wingers, and that accounts for Nani being shipped off to Sporting Lisbon and the constant ostracising of poor Adnan Januzaj. Wilfried Zaha is just another victim of Louis van Gaal’s methods.

In fact, during pre-season, the only way Zaha managed to get a game was by playing through the middle as a striker, which was never going to allow for many chances in the first team given the number of established strikers already at Louis van Gaal’s disposal.

Another theory is a bit simpler, but it’s quite harsh. What is he just wasn’t good enough in the first place? It’s not beyond the realms of possibility. There are hoards of Manchester United players who simply weren’t at the level required to flourish at Old Trafford. This seems to be backed up by what we see of Zaha in the Premier League. At Cardiff last season, he never really got going. Likewise with Palace, although he’s had the occasional moment of brilliance, it wouldn’t be right to say that he’s established himself as a Premier League player.

However, the mention of Zaha from now on will evoke a what-might’ve-been feeling for me. The reason he doesn’t pull up trees at teams like Crystal Palace and Cardiff is partly down to the fact that he isn’t the type of player who prospers in teams desperately struggling for survival – for those teams you real socks-down-to-the-ankles players willing to scrap and fight through games – Zaha isn’t that type of player.

The best of Wilfried Zaha was seen when he was part of a team that was expected to win every week (during Crystal Palace’s promotion charge). It felt that a team like Manchester United, where winning each game is absolutely vital, would be the perfect place for such an attack minded player. It is very possible that that he has a poor attitude, or that he isn’t good enough. But we never really got to stage where we could make that judgement.

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By Leo Nieboer

Mourning the loss of Danny Welbeck

7 replies on “Why didn’t it work out for Wilfried Zaha at United?”

I agree with your comments, Leo and I’ll add another aspect to Zaha’s failure at United. Sir Alex must have seen potential in Zaha to sign him in January 2013 but by loaning him back to Palace for the rest of the season and then promptly retiring, he didn’t give the lad a chance to benefit from his coaching

Zaha was Fergie’s last signing and quite a gamble at that, yet he never experienced life at Old Trafford under Sir Alex. On his first day in his new job he is confronted with Dithering Daisy and his Goodison Goons.

Right place, wrong time?

Certainly agree with that. Could have worked out so differently if Fergie had stayed put for another year.

By saying Zaha is like Ravel Morrison, John Bostock and Co shows how little you really know about Zaha, did you even get to see him play? he will certainly prosper more back at Palace than with the pedestal poodles that live at United… What were the papers saying 28 mins on the pitch… have you ever met a player who won over a manager & supporters with 28 mins? Man U failed Zaha not the other way round, Fergie was no fool to pay ten million, but Utd have been big fools in selling back so quickly and so cheaply, best buy this window….

You may be right, but he’s yet to prove himself at Premier League level. That’s why I compared him to Morrison – didn’t show his ability consistently – he is yet to show anything remarkable at Palace and certainly didn’t show anything good at Cardiff

Sad to see him leave and disappointed that he never really got a shot. But such is life at an elite club. Good luck Wilf. Hope this isn’t another Pogba storyline.

(Full disclosure: I am a United fan of nearly 40 years but my girlfriend supports Palace, so I’ve something of a shared interest. As her conversation often turns to the Eagles I’ve found myself listening to their Five Year Plan podcast in order that I have something to add. She, of course, is overjoyed to have him back).

In retrospect, I felt somewhat underwhelmed by the arrival of Wilf. I’d heard good things about him but I’d always recall my girlfriend’s father returning from a Championship game at Selhurt convinced that Bolassie was far the better player. Of course, I was cautiously optimistic and I remained hopeful he’d begin to earn encomiums from fellow reds. Sadly, as the weeks became months the rumours emerged via Red Issue (RIP): he’d shown a poor attitude, had arrived late for training and in one maddening incident, had failed to appear at all.

This may of course be nothing more significant than the Dunning-Kruger effect in action: Wilfried Zaha might not only be a bit stupid but crucially, he also might just be so stupid he doesn’t realise it. In other words, as much as I enjoy science, in more my lucid moments I know that I don’t have the intellectual capacity to, say, study physics at Cambridge. Having said that, if they were to offer me the chance, I’m not so stupid that I’d blow it without giving it everything I’ve got. Maybe Zaha blew it.

Somehow though I just don’t think that’s all that happened here. The Five Year Plan crew spoke of a polite, grounded young man who was highly regarded by all within the club and at the time of his transfer they gave no impression that they thought he’d fail. I think there’s more to this than simply a young man failing to take his chance. Perhaps Zaha was the wrong signing at the wrong time. Let’s face it, we were hardly playing electric football under SAF during his last years. Then came Moyes and that hardly needs repeating here. To move from a relatively small club, in a community he’d known all his life, to one of the biggest stages in world football would be stressful at any time, to do so when the man who signed you had retired and the club was thrust into a period of flux hardly leavened the pressure.

Ah well, in the end I guess we’ll never know. It’s true that Zaha hardly set the world alight at Cardiff and he’s been outshone this term by Bolassie. Maybe he just wasn’t good enough, maybe he’s in regression, maybe he’s the latest in a shameful line of talented home-grown players treated shoddily by English football. Maybe. Maybe. I’ve no hard feelings. I wish him well.

Sean, I enjoyed reading that. Cheers. You raise some very good points, you’re similar to how I viewed Zaha when he first joined. Your last point is the one I can’t stress enough – we’ll just never know. That makes me slightly sad.

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