Wanted: a fast, skilful right winger with excellent delivery and an eye for goal who loves to dribble. Must have: wow factor, Premier League experience and resale value. Job description: to bamboozle defences and bring wit, spontaneity and unpredictability to a stuttering attack. Vacancy: Old Trafford, Manchester.
It is approaching four years now since Wilfried Zaha returned to Crystal Palace after a wretched spell at Manchester United. No one, of course, can say with any conviction that, in different circumstances, things might have worked out for Zaha at Old Trafford or that, in such a pressurised, unrelenting environment, he would have coped with the mental examination or been given the time and opportunity to develop into the player he has since become.
But there seems a lot less doubt that the Zaha of 2018 possesses the sort of particular skill set United’s attacking right side has craved for some time and which, Palace will hope, he can utilise to winning effect at Old Trafford on Saturday.
Equally, it seems indicative of United’s prolonged troubles in the transfer market that, for all the indulgence of poor purchases and expensive misjudgements in recent years, Zaha never got so much as a sniff of the sustained opportunity players much less able and talented have subsequently enjoyed. It is why there are United fans who, despite all the many imponderables, will wonder if the Ivory Coast winger belongs in that bracket of the ones that got away – the right player in the wrong hands at the wrong time.
So much at Old Trafford might now be different had Sir Alex Ferguson stayed on but, as the Scot’s final signing as United manager yet someone who never got to play under him, Zaha had a lot more cause for frustration than, say, Robin van Persie, who was put out by Ferguson’s retirement only 12 months after his arrival from Arsenal.
Zaha had joined United in January 2013 but was loaned back to Palace for the remainder of that season and, by the time he pitched up at Old Trafford, Ferguson had already said his goodbyes. At least Van Persie got a Premier League winners’ medal and plenty of happy memories out of his year with Ferguson.
For Zaha, though, his 18 months at United compromised two league substitute appearances, as many loan moves, just 167 minutes of first-team football and a wave of other scurrilous rumours, most infamously some wholly unfounded claims about the player and the daughter of the then United manager, David Moyes. His attitude was also questioned.
It took a heavy toll and, in his own words, left him feeling isolated, alone and depressed. Zaha said he longed for some explanation about why he was persistently overlooked, and some guidance about what he needed to do to change that, but claimed he got neither.
If he was very raw, then, he has become a lot more refined as a player in the intervening years and there are unlikely to be too many United fans who, given a straight choice between the two, would argue now that the club would not have been wiser investing substantial funds to bring Zaha back to Old Trafford than sign Alexis Sánchez from Arsenal in January.
Sánchez is 30 next month and on a seemingly inexorable slide. Zaha turned 26 this month, has his best years ahead of him and, moreover, loves to occupy the right flank that has become such a conundrum for successive United managers and which Sanchez’s arrival wholly failed to address. Even if Sánchez had been a success at Old Trafford, it did not say much for the current recruitment strategies at the club that they signed yet another player who favours the left when it is the right that requires urgent attention.
Zaha is no luxury whose forms blows with the wind. He has been involved in as many goals for Palace in the league since the start of last season – 16 – as Bernardo Silva has for champions Manchester City and only one less than Willian, Chelsea’s right-sided forward. Since the start of last season, Palace have failed to win a league match without their talisman, scoring just three goals in those 11 games. With Zaha, they have won a third of their fixtures. No Palace player has won more fouls and penalties or completed more dribbles. He is a game-changer but he is also a hard working team player.
He has certainly been liberated since leaving Old Trafford. But United could also do with his sort now.