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Can Wilfried Zaha succeed at Manchester United second time around?

10:19 am AEDT 4/4/19
Wilfried Zaha Crystal Palace 2018-19
The wideman may have flopped at Old Trafford as a youngster, but could he return as part of Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's revolution?
As Ole Gunnar Solskjaer prepares for his first summer transfer window, one player being heavily linked to the club is Crystal Palace winger Wilfried Zaha, but having failed to make the grade at Manchester United once before, could things be different second time around?

Back in January 2013, United secured his signature from Palace for approximately £10.5 million, before loaning him back to the Eagles for the remainder of the season.

When he eventually did arrive at Carrington, David Moyes had just been appointed in possibly the toughest job in world football at the time.

The Glaswegian clearly didn’t think Zaha was ready to play for United and handed the then-England international (having debuted four days after his 20th birthday) just 26 Premier League minutes and one League Cup start.

On transfer deadline day in 2014, he left for a half-season loan at Cardiff City to play under a certain Norwegian head coach!

Since then, Zaha found his way back to Palace and has switched nationalities to the country of his birth. At Selhurst Park, he is the team’s main man and the side is built around him.

He is no longer just a touchline-hugging winger, but a mobile forward, and has even played alone up front on occasion; free of defensive duties and able to focus on leading counter attacks.

In recent seasons, Roy Hodgson has played a shuttler on the left who can supplement central midfield but also do Zaha’s defending on Palace’s flank. Ruben Loftus-Cheek fulfilled the role last season, and Jeffrey Schlupp is doing it now.

The team is built around ‘Wilf’.

Should he return to United, that would not be the case; he would certainly have to be more of a collaborator than he is now in attacking positions, whilst he is likely to have greater duties in pressing from the front, something Palace have not done a great deal under Hodgson.

They did, however, under Alan Pardew in some games against the big six, bringing several impressive wins.

There can be little doubt that Zaha’s displays have warranted this interest from Solskjaer.

Wilfried Zaha | 2018-19 Premier League stats

His development in the last couple of seasons has been clear; after just six goals and eight assists combined in 2014/15 and 2015/16, he netted seven times the season after and added 11 assists. Only one of those was from winning a penalty, with the other 10 coming in open play.

Last season, he increased his goal tally in the league to nine, but dropped to seven assists for the campaign. He missed nine games due to a knee injury, as Palace lost all of those and scored only three times in his absence. Two of those assists were for penalties and five from open play.

This season, the Ivorian has eight goals and seven assists, but four of those have come from winning penalties for Luka Milivojevic to convert.

There can be zero doubt that he is amongst the most dangerous players in European football when dribbling inside the box, and despite accusations of diving, his skill and pace off the mark requires only minimal contact to draw a penalty.

Zaha’s numbers for taking on players are exceptional; he has made the tied-most dribbles per game in the Premier League this season at 3.2 (with Eden Hazard) and was second only to the Belgian in the last campaign.

However, he had more dribbles per match than the Chelsea man in both 2015-16 and 2016-17, and has been in the top two in this category for four straight seasons. He had the seventh most the year before that.

It’s an elite aspect of his game.

At United, he would give the side greater final-third ability to eliminate opponents with individual skill.

The Red Devils have average 8.2 dribbles per game this season, less than 10 other teams. Under Solskjaer, their biggest change in playing style has been their greater number of fast tempo attacks, which rely on dribbling and one-touch passing.

Zaha fits into that perfectly.

In a 4-3-3, he would play as a wide forward, potentially on the right flank as Anthony Martial favours the left side.

In a 4-4-2 diamond, Zaha would be one of the two split strikers – a front pairing who each works a channel or a half-space and plays fairly far from their partner.

For this role, he would be competing with Marcus Rashford, Anthony Martial and Romelu Lukaku.

United’s lack of a natural right winger has been a problem for a while, as the club moved for Alexis Sanchez despite him favouring the same left flank as Martial.

Zaha is more effective on the left of a front three or on the left of a two wide strikers, but he is capable in a wide right berth too.

On the financial side, United have a 25% sell-on clause with Palace which would, theoretically at least, lower the transfer fee that would need to be spent.

His recent reaction to persistent fouls against him against Southampton and his subsequent red card for clapping referee Andre Marriner should not be enough of a flashpoint to warrant questions over his character.

Another potential target for United is Zaha’s international teammate, Lille winger Nicolas Pepe.

He has ripped up Ligue 1 this season with 18 goals and nine assists, and while his dribbling numbers aren’t as high as Zaha, he’s significantly more effective in front of goal.

Pepe is more natural as a right winger, albeit an inverted one who cuts inside onto his favoured left foot. He would arguably suit that role at United better than Zaha, but the latter has delivered at a high level for three seasons in England, whereas Pepe has only been tested in France.

We have seen Eden Hazard, Anthony Martial, Riyad Mahrez and Florent Malouda make this transition very well in the last decade, but Pepe may need one move before he reaches an elite club.

Some may argue that United’s recent seasons out of the Champions League knockout stages puts them in exactly that category!

Perhaps a Zaha or a Pepe could develop under Solskjaer at the same time as the club looks to reach the very top table again.

If not, Arsenal are lacking natural wingers beyond Alex Iwobi, and Zaha has long been linked with a Tottenham Hotspur side who could have money to spend if Toby Alderweireld or Christian Eriksen leave for pastures new.