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Would Zaha and Chelsea be a good match?

04:07 GMT+3 11/01/2020
Wilfried Zaha Crystal Palace 2019-20
Will the Ivory Coast international prove against Arsenal this weekend that he ought to be snapped up by one of the Premier League's biggest clubs?

Guest Feature

by James O'Conners

With the January transfer window now open, one player being strongly linked once again with a move to one of the traditional ‘big six’ clubs is Crystal Palace winger Wilfried Zaha.

Chelsea are the giants most heavily tipped for a move for the Ivory Coast wideman, but would club and player be a good fit for one another?

In the off-season, Zaha had a much-publicised will to leave Crystal Palace and join Arsenal, with the player’s brother stating that he has supported The Gunners since childhood and moving there would be the realisation of a dream.

However, with a more attractive payment schedule, Nicolas Pepe was signed by the Gunners instead.

They, in turn, sold Alex Iwobi to Everton after The Toffees have made an offer reported to be worth £60 million in transfer fees, plus striker Cenk Tosun, for Zaha.

In this window, Chelsea are the club being most seriously linked after they completed their reduced transfer ban.

After agreeing deals worth up to £130m to sell Eden Hazard to Real Madrid and £58m for Alvaro Morata’s switch to Atletico Madrid, their coffers are swollen and they could easily pay Palace’s reported £80m asking price.

As is now well-known, the main weapon that Zaha would bring to Chelsea is his ability to dribble past opponents.

With recent defeats at home to Bournemouth (0-1), West Ham United (0-1) and Southampton (0-2), it is clear that Frank Lampard’s side are really struggling to break down deep, organised defences.

A look at the stats for the last six months of 2019 showed that Zaha had attempted more dribbles (162) than any other player in Europe’s big five leagues this season.

He had succeeded in eliminating his direct opponent on 103 occasions, also the most across the foremost European competitions.

Considering that Zaha had played every single minute in 19 of Palace’s first 20 Premier League games of the season, the per-90 average is also relevant, to ensure that he’s simply not just playing more than Europe’s other dribble masters.

If we used that method to look at players with 10 or more appearances during the first half of the season, he dropped down into sixth spot, with Lionel Messi, Allan Saint-Maximin and Adama Traore ahead of him.

His dribble success rate of 63.1 percent was way below that of Barcelona’s legend (Messi, not Traore!) who boasts 76.6 percent, whilst Traore beat his man 74 percent of the time come New Year.

Zaha is way ahead of the mercurial Newcastle wideman, Saint-Maximin though, who registers a 60 percent success-rate.

The big question is whether Zaha could thrive playing in a big side who will often face defensively resolute opponents with ten men behind the ball, doubling up on the wide players.

There is no doubt that playing in a side on the front foot would be a new reality for Zaha and the style of play would demand adaptation.

At Palace, it’s all about defending small spaces and attacking big spaces for Roy Hodgson’s men, whilst the top clubs defend higher up the pitch and often have to attack small spaces.

Zaha, however, is used to being given little time to breathe.

As the main attacking threat in South London, he regularly faces double-teaming and very physical play.

James Ward-Prowse spent most of the clash between Southampton and Palace in late December, for example, trying to wind up Zaha or making clear tactical fouls on him.

That type of treatment is common and has not stopped the winger from thriving.

One possible appeal to Chelsea is the fact that Zaha has played a lot of his football as a striker in the past.

Last season, he played up front on 15 occasions, scoring twice and assisting three times in those matches. That is not a flowing record, but one of those goals was in a 3-2 win at The Emirates against Arsenal, Palace’s opponents this weekend.

In the 2017-18 season, he started 17 games as a striker, scoring eight goals and assisting three more.

In many matches that season, he was used alongside Andros Townsend with a very disciplined midfield four behind that to allow the front pairing to stay high up and work the channels.

Although few of these matches up front were as the lone striker, and he instead came in a narrow 4-4-2 shape, this is a useful string to his bow, as Chelsea are desperately short of trusted cover for Tammy Abraham in attack.

Michy Batshuayi has not started a league or Champions League match all season and Olivier Giroud looks set for the exit door.

In fact, both players have been linked as makeweights in any deal for Zaha, with Batshuayi netting six goals on loan with The Eagles last season.

Having Zaha in the squad would potentially allow Chelsea to have just two frontline strikers with the West African providing another option.

There is a perception that Zaha is a liability defensively, simply because he is so often given license to stay high up the pitch to lead counter attacks. However, his defensive work is actually very good in terms of tracking his man.

When Palace beat Bournemouth 1-0 recently with ten men, Zaha protected Jeffrey Schlupp excellently by dropping deep into an auxiliary left-back role. With injuries at full-back in recent weeks, both Jairo Riedewalf and James McArthur have deputised in that position.

Neither has found themselves regularly exposed by an irresponsible Zaha; in fact, the opposite is true.

For many Chelsea supporters, Zaha is not their ideal choice, and they instead want Jadon Sancho, who is seven-and-a-half years younger.

The fact is, if Lampard and Chelsea move for Zaha, then it’s because they feel he is in his peak and that he can deliver immediately due to his familiarity with the league.

There is a no way a 27-year-old will be bought with next season in mind and the Ivorian would need to produce from day one.

Whilst Christian Pulisic settles fully into the Premier League and Callum Hudson-Odoi strives for his best level after rupturing his Achilles last season, Zaha would step into an Eden Hazard-sized void. The other big appeal is that he can play in the Champions League right away, whereas Jadon Sancho is cup-tied.

If the move were to be delayed until the summer, then it would perhaps mean that Chelsea are not going to give Willian the two-year contract he wants at the age of 31, and may instead let him depart on a free.

Zaha would be a replacement for the Brazilian, albeit one who is far more comfortable on the left flank. Pedro is also out of contract and could leave as early as January.

When it comes down to it, Chelsea have to balance signing for the long-term and trying to win matches right away, both in the league and Champions League.

The Blues would also be taking a leap of faith that Zaha could produce elite levels of goals and assists in a better team and with more licence to do what he does best.