Premier League

Dortmund would provide intriguing twist in Zaha's journey

 • by Mark Thompson
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The career of Wilfried Zaha is a cautionary tale for talented young footballers.

A starter for Crystal Palace at 17, he was bought by Manchester United for £10million six years ago; costing just £4million less than Shinji Kagawa.

He made just four appearances for the Red Devils.

But Zaha’s response to the difficult time at Old Trafford is another lesson to youngsters.

“Getting to United isn’t easy, so not being given a chance is hard to take,” he said in an interview with ShortList. “I don’t regret anything because it made me stronger. I feel as though I can deal with anything now.

“I went through so much with United, with England. There were rumours that the reason I wasn’t playing [many games] for United was because I slept with [then manager] David Moyes’s daughter, and no one [at the club] attempted to clear that up. So I was fighting my demons by myself, these rumours that I knew weren’t true.

“I was dealing with this at 19; living in Manchester by myself, nowhere near anyone else, because the club had a hold over where I lived. They hadn’t given me a car, like every other player [had]. Nothing. I’m living in this hell by myself, away from my family, and I thought, ‘If this doesn’t make me stronger, what will?’”

Now, after several good years back at Crystal Palace, Zaha is being linked with a move to Borussia Dortmund.

That promise, which inspired Manchester United to make the winger Sir Alex Ferguson’s final transfer at the club, could finally be coming home to roost.

A leap into the unknown

In hindsight, it was unfair to expect Zaha to make the leap, aged 19, at Old Trafford. The turbulence in the wake of Ferguson’s retirement didn’t help, but his career progression has been quite predictable.

Looking at Zaha’s goals and assists per 90 minutes, it’s 2016/17 when he really hit his stride. That season, he was 23, turning 24, and that’s an age where players are hitting their peak years.

SeasonAge at start of seasonClubNon-penalty goals and assists per 90 minutes
2013/1420Manchester United0.00
2013/1420Cardiff0.15
2014/1521Crystal Palace0.27
2015/1622Crystal Palace0.11
2016/1723Crystal Palace0.45
2017/1824Crystal Palace0.42
2018/1925Crystal Palace0.25

This season, his end product may have dipped, but he’s still performing well considering the team he’s in.

The chances he’s creating for his team-mates are worth 0.18 expected goals per 90 minutes. That puts him 46th in the league but of the 45 above him, only three are from fellow relegation-embattled teams.

For a club like Dortmund, who have made the careers of young dribblers Christian Pulisic and Jadon Sancho, Zaha makes sense. He averages 3.05 successful take-ons per 90 minutes in the league, the second-best rate in the top flight for players who are regular starters. Only Chelsea’s Eden Hazard is above him.

And by rights, the chances he’s created should probably have led to another one or two assists than he has. He has two and his expected goals assisted figure is 3.62; this gap is part of a wider story of Crystal Palace being terrible at converting good chances this year.

Having only recently turned 26, Zaha still has several peak years ahead of him. Contributing nearly a goal every two games for Crystal Palace from 2016/17 to 2017/18 is eye-catching enough to suspect that he could add even more on a better team.

The rumour is a bit of an eyebrow-raiser, but not as much of one as it might first appear.

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