With Manchester United not in action this past weekend, it seemed like a good time to watch a player that will be arriving at Old Trafford in the summer -- Wilfried Zaha. This was a key match for both Crystal Palace and Middlesbrough as both Championship clubs are currently in contention for promotion to the Premier League. Here's a Zaha-centric running diary of the events from Selhurst Park.
Pre-game: Zaha is to be deployed as the right-sided attacker in Palace's 4-2-3-1 shape. Middlesbrough are in a 4-4-2 shape
1' - Zaha's first involvement is simply expressing frustration that striker Glenn Murray didn't play him in near the edge of the box 50 seconds into the match. There was space for the winger on the right side of the box. That's probably a pass Robin van Persie can make.
4' - The 20-year-old is still yet to get a meaningful and clean touch on the ball. He's staying goalside of his opposing full-back when out of possession and staying near enough to his own right-back for proper protection.
5' - First meaningful touches for the winger: Zaha receives near the touchline about 5 yards into Palace's attacking half, he's then immediately closed down by a full-back, a winger, and a central-midfielder; he then dribbles infield about 10 yards - while escaping all 3 defenders - and plays a 15 yard square ball to a central-midfielder. He follows this with a skip further towards the middle until the Palace central-midfielder is dispossessed. It's impressive how at ease Zaha relieved pressure after being bracketed near the right touchline.
7' - A few times now in the past few minutes, he's drifted inward from the right touchline.
9' GOAL PALACE - Palace's left-back whips in a cross from the touchline. After two poor clearance attempts from Boro, Zaha collects the ball just outside the box and slightly right of center. The Boro left-back and a midfielder immediately shackle him, however, Zaha impressively escapes them both with good close-control, dribbling, and acceleration before getting to the byline for a low-driven right-footed cross for Murray's easy finish.
- Brilliant by Zaha: Two rollover, dragged dribbles with his left-foot while facing inward toward his defenders - this created space for him to step right and get separation for the cross.
11' - Zaha drifts near the left touchline for a Palace throw-in to receive near the box. He immediately takes on defenders, beating one before being dispossessed by another near the byline after trying a few Cristiano Ronaldo type of stepovers.
11' - Still on the left, he tries a cheeky backheel flick to release an attacker behind the Boro backline. The pass is intercepted.
13' - The winger appears to have switched flanks. A long ball has been played over the top for him into space so that he that he can run into the channel - similar to the balls played for Danny Welbeck at Real Madrid. It's an easy ball for the Boro defender to handle, but he hurried the clearance out of bounds -- perhaps in fear of Zaha's pace.
16' - Zaha drops in from the left touchline to receive inside and near the halfway line before immediately playing a pass back to a Palace center-back. This helped to momentarily relieve pressure from Boro's pressing. That was a good read of available space.
19' - The young winger once again displays composure when he's in tight spaces - he receives under pressure near the touchline but he's able to release a simple pass.
21' - Zaha is much, much quicker than Chelsea youngster (on loan to Boro) Josh McEachran....
23' - Zaha is hugging the left-touchline: a through-ball is played for him in between the Boro center-back and right-back and the winger shows explosive acceleration to beat the right-back (Stuart Parnaby) to the ball. The Englishman then instantly cuts back and whips in a right-footed cross (this sequence was lightning quick) that Murray just misses getting on the end of 4-5 yards away from goal.
23' - Taxi for Parnaby! Zaha SURGES past his marker after receiving near the left touchline and goes outside the full-back and plays in a wonderful left-footed cross for Murray... the striker heads over. The goal was wide open and it's clear Murray should have finished.
24' - Zaha, AGAIN, races to the outside of Parnaby and wins a corner. This is like watching Antonio Valencia against Ashley Cole! Or Nani against Gael Clichy!
28' - Zaha does well to sit back when his full-back gets forward into attack. Basic stuff, but still good to see.
31' - Zaha receives for a short corner on the right and beats his marker to send a cross in. It's snuffed out and cleared. A nicely drilled in cross though.
34' - Lots of people kicking each other and this causes stoppages in play. Tempo has being slowing down.
37' - Palace not looking for Zaha nearly enough.
38' - Long ball played down the left touchline and Zaha outruns Parnaby to it - United's newest winger is immediately closed down by multiple defenders. He plays it back to his left-back who then sends in an unsuccessful cross.
44' - A good 10-15 minute spell for Boro. Zaha hardly involved during this time.
45' - 4 minutes of added time because these two sides enjoy kicking each other a lot.
45'+2 - Zaha continues to go short on corners looking to receive: after an initial sent-in corner was cleared, the young England international picks the ball up near the left touchline and dances for awhile with stepovers. The commentator (rightfully) called it "showboating." I'm really hoping Boro doesn't kick him soon.
45'+3 - Zaha receives a long diagonal outside the box to the left. He takes on his marker and wins a corner.
HT - ‘Wilf' -- which is what he's apparently called at Palace -- is clearly the standout player of the first-half. He switched over from the right to the left just after the 10 minute mark and he had his way with Boro right-back Parnaby. Murray should have a hat-trick thus far just from Zaha's service. 1-0 to Palace.
46' - Zaha starts the half on the right.
48' - The winger drifts infield and then to the left to create a 3 v 2 overload. He then plays a lovely ‘one-two' just outside the box which leads to Jonathan Williams playing a dangerous cross just in front the goal. Good appreciation of space by Zaha. The won corner leads to a goal for Palace. 2-0.
50' - Zaha picks the ball up in his own half, carries it forward 15-20 yards on a counter, and then after a stepover, he plays a decent ball with the outside of his right-foot to the right touchline for a Palace player making an overlapping run.
51' - He again steps over the ball and plays a clever pass to the overlapping full-back. This leads to an unsuccessful cross. Nice patience shown by the youngster -- the space for the full-back was created when the winger drew multiple defenders towards him.
53' - Zaha carries the ball about 30 yards during a counter that follows a Boro corner. He beats one defender with a dribble and then is dispossessed by another defender. He had little help at this point as not enough Palace players had gotten forward yet.
54' - Zaha receives in his own half and is tackled early. A quick transition by Boro leads to nothing. The youngster could have been more alert to the defender nearby or perhaps it could have been communicated to him by a teammate.
57' - Murray. Wow. Wonderstrike. 3-0 Palace.
61' - Once again, Zaha takes on his marker near the touchline, stepsover twice, and then bursts past the Boro full-back prior to unsuccessfully crossing from the byline. The acceleration he just displayed is hugely impressive.
63' - England manager Roy Hodgson in the house. Presumably to watch Zaha.
65' - Every time Zaha is on the ball right now, there is anticipation by the Selhurst Park crowd that the youngster is going to do something special. He's nearly unplayable at the moment. No Boro defender can handle him.
69' - Zaha plays a perfectly-weighted through-ball between the Boro left-back and center-back for an overlapping full-back. The resulting cross is picked up by Boro's ‘keeper.
75' - Zaha picks the ball up near his own box and then dribbles to the halfway line before having an attempted pass blocked. It's almost as if the ball is glued to his boots when he dribbles. Impressive by him to spin away from his defender after he initially got to the ball.
77' - A long ball is hit out wide to the right for the pacey youngster to chase. He outruns a defender to the ball but his eventual pass is intercepted.
80' - Boro pull one back. 3-1 to Palace.
84' - Oh.My.Word. The winger drifts to the middle and collects the ball in the center-circle. From here, he takes one quick touch before sliding a delicious through-ball for Kevin Phillips just outside the box - the resulting chance was then clinically finished. Terrific vision by Zaha as his inch-perfect 25 yard pass split the two Boro central-defenders.
89' - This diarist is currently wiping the Zaha-induced saliva from his keyboard. This has been an extraordinary performance. I'd give him a player rating of 8. I could forgive somebody if they wanted give him a 9.
90+3' - Zaha is played into space on the right. He tries to take on a defender and is tackled. He re-gathers the ball and is dispossessed after again taking on a defender.
FT - Crystal Palace 4-1 Middlesbrough. 2 assists for Zaha.
Overall, Zaha was incredilby impressive and despite Murray's brace (the striker should have had two more goals from the winger's service alone), the 20-year-old was the clear man-of-the-match. By some accounts, the youngster's form has dipped since his England debut in November. However, there were no signs of struggle in this match. Here's the praise Palace manager Ian Holloway -- who has been on the job since early November -- gave his player after the match:
"Wilf today with the England manager watching him, his choice of pass, his weight of pass, he used his full-back's run to beat someone. That was what I inherited when I first got here and that's as good as he's played for me I think. I told him at half-time (Hodgson was in attendance), so what a stroke of genius that might have been! Although he did well enough in the first half, he is literally as good as any chef I've seen, he can roast people. He's roasted both their full-backs...they'll be delighted to go home to be honest."
- Holloway | Source: Crystal Palace's official site
Ian Holloway is wonderful.
As the Palace manager mentions, Zaha's decision-making was very good as was the accuracy of his passes -- whether they were whipped-in crosses or defense-splitting through balls. The touch he displayed was tremendous as well as it looked like his boots were pillows when he was operating in tight spaces. His calmness when under pressure is impressive as is his willingness to have a go at his marker(s). When he dribbles, it looks as if the ball is glued to his feet. Furthermore, his athleticism is clear for everyone to see: his acceleration is explosive and when he's running at full-speed, he consistently glides past defenders.
It was also encouraging to see that Zaha is comfortable on either flank and also through the middle. He exhibited 'old-school' winger ability while also showing the elements of a modern footballer by effectively floating into available attacking space all across the pitch. He can beat his opposing full-back to either side -- and on either flank -- and he showed (in this game at least) that he can cross with both feet. His shooting ability, though, was never really on display.
Zaha was really, really fun to watch. It'll be interesting to see how his talent translates to the Premier League and in Europe. Talent wise, he was a clear notch or seven above his Championship peers in this match. There has been the reported dip in form these past few months so hopefully the youngster begins to consistently provide these sort of performances for Palace's run-in.
* Be sure to check out the always fanastic 'Beautifully Red' for GIFS on Zaha's performance -- they have a number of moments described in this running diary covered.