Premier League

Bully-boy tactics aren't halting Zaha evolution

 • by Ryan Baldi
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“I don’t even know what to say anymore. I feel like before anyone has to get a red card I’d have to get my leg broken or something, which is why I lose my head.”

Wilfried Zaha‘s anger was palpable as he spoke to the BBC after Crystal Palace’s win over Huddersfield Town at John Smith’s Stadium, in which he’d scored the game’s only goal.

Once again, the Ivory Coast forward had seemingly been singled out for rough treatment by the opposition, targeted with tackles tinged with malice, aimed at slowing him in his tracks.

This came just weeks after Watford‘s Etienne Capoue was allowed to get off with just a yellow card after painfully scraping his studs down Zaha’s achilles, a foul from which the Palace man was lucky to escape serious injury.

It is difficult to understate Zaha’s importance to Palace. The Eagles’ history-making poor start to last season coincided with their star man missing six of their first seven games through injury, all of which they lost without mustering a single goal’s resistance.

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Upon retuning to the side in October, he struck as Palace beat champions Chelsea, one of three goals he’d bag in five games. Zaha’s restoration aided Roy Hodgson’s men’s climb to mid-table safety. Their only consecutive defeats throughout the rest of the season came when they lost four on the trot in February and early March; Zaha was injured for the first three of those games.

So, the logic is obvious: stop Zaha and you stop Crystal Palace – a feat much easier to achieve through nefarious means; why go to the trouble of devising a tactical system to contain the gifted former Manchester United attacker when you can just kick him whenever he gets the ball?

And Zaha admitted in the same post-match interview that this special attention is affecting his game.

“It’s hard, because you don’t want to go on a run because you feel like someone will come through the back of you and you’ll get injured,” he said.

“It doesn’t allow you to express yourself the way you normally would… But I’ve just got to let my feet do the talking.”

And the numbers, on first glance, appear to bear out the theory that the roughhousing of Zaha is detrimentally impacting his performances. Although he has scored three times already this season, a third of the way to his total from last term in just four games, he is dribbling less, as illustrated by the above graph.

Last season, Zaha completed 4.19 take-ons per 90 minutes in the Premier League; his current per-90 rate has dropped to just two.

His overall creativity has been impacted, too, with fewer open-play key passes per 90 – down at one from last season’s 1.72 – while his expected goals assisted (xA) has dropped from 0.27 per 90 to 0.12.

Additionally, despite his impressive early goals return, Zaha’s average for expected goals (xG) – the metric which uses historical data to measure the quality and quantity of scoring chances – has also fallen, down at 0.21 per 90 from 0.32.

These statistical drop-offs, though, are likely a result of multiple factors, of which the psychological impact of the persistent fouling Zaha has fallen victim to is just one, and probably only a minor one at that.

Primarily, there is the matter of Zaha’s increased profile. For years, he the 25-year-old was viewed as a talented yet deeply flawed and inconsistent player; frustrating as often as he dazzled. That has changed dramatically over the last 18 months, as Zaha has blossomed into one of the most dangerous players in the Premier League.

As such, opposition managers are now paying closer attention to him than previously. This, of course, is a factor related to the overly physical treatment the player is receiving, but the denial of space and the doubling up of markers is a more constant obstacle Zaha has to contend with.

Also, there is the matter of Zaha’s continual adaptation to a new role. Considered a pure winger for much of his early career, the Palace star took up a central position on a regular basis last season, with the Eagles’ lack of depth in the striking department allowing him to start 22 of his 28 Premier League appearances as a centre-forward or second striker.

This kind of advanced role naturally limits the space Zaha has to work in. And while this was also the case last season, when he was putting up greater numbers for creative skills such as dribbling and chance creation, the reduction in these areas could be explained by a gradual adaptation to a more traditional striker’s remit.

Indeed, it seems the emphasis of Zaha’s game is moving more towards his clinical finishing in front of goal than creating chances for others. Zaha’s ablity to strike the ball cleanly and accurately with either foot, capable of getting off high-quality shots in confined spaces, has seen him add value to the chances he receives.

A way of measuring this particular attribute is to use Football Whispers‘ post-shot xG model (xG2), which factors in both chance quality and shot placement. Zaha’s average xG2 for the season so far is 0.27 per 90, while his xG – which considers only chance quality – is 0.21 per 90, giving him a shot-placement ratio (xG2/xG) of 1.25, thus quantifying the value his finishing ability adds to the chances he receives.

There has also been a marked improvement in some of Zaha’s more basic statistics, with his total shots per 90 up to 2.5 from 2.25, and his shot accuracy (the percentage of shots on target vs. off target) has risen to 60 per cent from 40.6 per cent.

So, while the bully-boys will continue to kick and harass the Palace No.11, their underhanded tactics will only get them so far. Zaha is getting better and better at what he does; with his talent dong the talking, he won’t be silenced.

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