If you go back and watch Wilfried Zaha’s match-winning display against Chelsea last weekend, you quickly notice something strange. Crystal Palace, protecting a 2-1 lead for the last 80 minutes of the game, spend most of those minutes engaged in desperate defence. But with a very few exceptions, Zaha is a bystander in all this: dawdling along the halfway line, a blur in the background, like an admiral watching the Normandy invasions from the safety of the poop deck, gin and tonic in hand.
On one level, this would appear to tally with the tried-and-tested Zaha tropes. His former Palace team-mate Brede Hangeland once described him as one of the laziest players he had ever played with. “We’d go to the gym together,” Hangeland told Norwegian radio this year. “He’d do, like, five push-ups, sigh, and leave.”
But when Palace get the ball, it all begins to makes sense. As Christian Benteke holds it up, Zaha bursts into life: darting ahead, daring the Chelsea defence to hold its line. Sometimes he runs left, sometimes right, but always into space. He sets up one goal for Benteke, scores one himself and arguably should have had more. Afterwards his manager, Sam Allardyce, with only the merest hint of hyperbole, suggests he could be as good as Eden Hazard.
When Allardyce was appointed at Palace, some feared for Zaha: a gifted winger who possessed every trick in the book, but lacked the defensive vigilance Allardyce demands from all his wide players. With Palace leaking goals, the suspicion was that Zaha might find himself marginalised as an expensive luxury; or worse, that his natural exuberance might be shackled.
Instead Zaha has thrived, scoring three goals in nine games and locating the consistency that eluded him during the early years of his career. He is, according to Allardyce, “maturing as a person”, becoming a father last year and taking control of his international future by declaring allegiance to Ivory Coast. Partly this is the natural development of a 24-year-old who can no longer use youth as an excuse. But there are also tactical factors behind Zaha’s recent surge in form, which stem from the club’s decision to dispense with Alan Pardew late last year.
Pardew adored traditional wingers. He liked his wide men to stay wide in a 4-3-3: beat a man, get to the goalline, cross the ball. If you study the game against Everton in September (see graphic), Zaha is confined almost exclusively to the right touchline. A quarter of his passes are crosses, which, even if you have a natural predator such as Benteke in the penalty area, is still a relatively low-percentage tactic. According to a recent analysis by FourFourTwo magazine, only one in every 92 crosses in the Premier League leads to a goal.
This explains, partly at least, why Zaha’s statistics were so poor until the start of this season. A return of just three assists and six goals in 65 Premier League games merely fuelled the accusation that he was a player with fancy stepovers but little substance. “The stuff I do means nothing if I don’t score or don’t assist,” he admitted in February. “When I get near the goal, I just see flashing lights, and I think I’ve already scored.”
Playing with a recognised striker in Benteke this season has helped, but of greater significance is the decision by Allardyce to give him more attacking freedom. Compare the Everton game to last weekend’s 2-1 win over Chelsea. Playing as a second striker alongside Benteke in a 4-4-2, Zaha was largely freed of defensive responsibility, which made him all the more dangerous on the break. The majority of his touches were in the final thir, and instead of being confined to one wing, he was able to come in off both, popping up in threatening positions and getting shots away.
Long derided as a player with “no end-product”, Zaha has become the end-product himself.
This was a process that was already beginning under Pardew, a man whose role in rehabilitating Zaha’s career after a traumatic stint at Manchester United should not be overlooked. But Allardyce has accelerated the process.
Since the start of February, Zaha has actually made 40 per cent fewer tackles and interceptions, and taken around 40 per cent more shots. And so, as it turned out, Allardyce did not shackle Zaha. He set him free.
Not everything is going swimmingly yet. He still has a tendency to lose the ball in dangerous areas, as against Southampton on Wednesday night. And his inability to overlook a slight, whether it is a bad tackle on the pitch or negative press off it, means he still frustrates too easily. But there is a sense that a player who has remained stubbornly in chrysalis may finally be cashing in on his talent. “The potential,” as Allardyce puts it, “is becoming a reality.”