As Yohan Cabaye’s lofted shot soared over the desperate dive of Emiliano Martinez in the Arsenal goal, two things happened; 1) Arsenal Fan TV had automatically secured another half a million views 2) Wilfried Zaha registered his ninth Premier League assist of the season. This puts him amongst elite company, joint-second with Alexis Sanchez and only two behind Kevin de Bruyne, Gylfi Sigurdsson and Christian Eriksen at the top of the charts.
Sigurdsson and Zaha are clearly the standout name in that quintet of players, given the relegation battles their respective sides have faced this season. While the Icelandic international has received plenty of praise for his importance to Swansea’s chances of staying up, Zaha has gone relatively under the radar until recent matchwinning performances against Chelsea and Arsenal. However, a return of 6 points from 6 against sides Palace would have realistically expected to get zero from has shone attention on the stellar form of their academy graduate, and rightfully so.
Like Shaun Wright-Phillips, Aaron Lennon, Theo Walcott, Andros Townsend, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Raheem Sterling before him, Zaha has been accused of “lacking an end product”. It is not hard to notice some shared characteristics of the players above but that is another article for another time. However it is an accusation that might well have been true in previous seasons, with Zaha’s goal and assist return not reflective of his talent. In 2016/17 though, he has taken his game to another level and only needs 1 more goal to have his best ever League goalscoring season. This becomes even more impressive when taking into account that in the previous occasions where he notched 6 league goals, these came in 40+ matches in the Championship, while he has already matched that total in just 28 Premier League games. If he carries this form into next season, Zaha is potentially a player who could be racking up double figures for both goals and assists.
So what is behind Zaha’s surge in good form? It could be the influence of Sam Allardyce who has slightly tweaked Zaha’s position in the team. Sam Allardyce has a reputation for negative, dour football but he often finds space in his team for a creative maverick, and Zaha’s ability to carry the ball 60 yards up the pitch is vital in relieving pressure and countering, both of which are crucial to Palace’s survival bid. Under Alan Pardew Zaha was still playing well, but he was very much a chalk-on-boots winger who hugged the touchline and looked to get crosses into the box. In Allardyce’s system, he is encouraged to get closer to Christian Benteke and feed off the Belgian, which has led to him getting the ball in more central areas as he did for both his goal and assist versus Chelsea. In previous seasons this was normally the remit of Yannick Bolasie but Zaha has relished the extra responsibility placed upon him after the Congolese international’s departure from Selhurst Park.
The resolution of his international future has been a plus as well, and Zaha must surely be incentivised by the knowledge that maintaining his form and fitness will see him starting in the World Cup next year should the Ivory Coast qualify, whereas no amount of assists would have allowed him to displace Jesse Lingard from the England squad. Wilfried Zaha has also shown excellent decision making skills, which has contributed to his increased output. An example of this would be both of his assists last night, in which he opted for low, driven passes across the box when it must have been severely tempting to have put high lofted balls into mixer given how much success Benteke was enjoying aerially.
Everything seems to have come together at the right time for Zaha, who is still only 24 and has plenty of room for further improvement. His form has seen links to the Premier League’s top clubs materialize and it will be a fight for Palace to hang onto their prized possession, but should he leave they will no doubt be well compensated. Whether it be at Palace or elsewhere, there is no reason why Zaha cannot continue his ascent into the upper echelon of Premier League attackers.