Manchester United have spent £15m on Wilfried Zaha from Crystal Palace. They don’t spend that sort of money on a player who they have no intention of using in the first team in the future, but is he ready for the big step up from the Championship to Old Trafford in 2013/14?
Zaha is a raw but extremely talented prospect who United feel they can develop in to one of the most dangerous wide forwards in the Premier League. His combination of size, pace, balance and a whole abundance of skill and trickery makes him a real handful to cope with. He stepped up his performances in the Play-Offs and almost single-handedly dragged Palace to an unlikely promotion. However, his return of 8 goals and 8 assists and an extended dip in form in early 2013 indicate that he might not be ready to start at United.
Zaha is just 20 years old and needs to be handled properly. He is at the exact phase of his career where young stars can be turned in to first team stars or they can run out of steam and lose impetus in their development. Realistically, Zaha is competing for one of the two wide forward positions as David Moyes is likely to roll out either a 4-4-1-1 or 4-2-3-1 system.
His competition for one of these spots comes in the shape of Ashley Young, Antonio Valencia, Danny Welbeck, Shinji Kagawa and Nani if the Portugese stays at the club. Tom Cleverley or even Wayne Rooney could be used out in wider areas too. Zaha will start at the back of that queue as the youngest and least experienced.
Questions marks have appeared over the heads of Ashley Young and Antonio Valencia due to pretty underwhelming campaigns last season. Young struggled with injury after a promising debut campaign so it’s fair to expect that he can re-find those levels again once fully fit. Valencia was more puzzling. Normally the epitome of consistency and solid offensive production, last season he got in to good areas but time and again failed to find the right cross.
However, David Moyes will surely like his work rate and professionalism and give him a chance to get himself back to the levels he found in his first two seasons at United. Although Zaha was certainly purchased to compete for a starting spot with Young and Valencia after last season, it was not necessarily with 2013/14 in mind.
If he stayed at United, it’s hard to see a scenario where Zaha would get regular game time as a starter at United. And regular game time as a starter is exactly what he needs. He needs to be starting every single week in the Premier League and show United what he can do. It doesn’t really help him to play in the League Cup or if Moyes rotates the team against some of the smaller teams in the Premier League as it won’t push him to get better. With this in mind, a loan spell at a Premier League club is the best option.
The first team that comes to mind are Crystal Palace, but that’s not a good idea. At Man United Zaha is going to be one of the star men if he develops properly, at Palace he would be the star man still. A relegation scrap in a team in which he has already proved what he can do won’t push him to improve. He needs to be somewhere new.
Everton would be an excellent place for him to go. Roberto Martinez has shown he can develop young players and if, as expected, he switches to a 433 at Everton, Zaha and Mirallas would be an excellent combination in the front three. He would have to earn his place and play well to keep it. It’s the kind of winning environment he could excel in.
Another great option would be West Brom. Last season they took Romelu Lukaku from raw talent to the fringe of the Chelsea first team. They play a rapid counter attacking style with true width which would suit Zaha’s skill set. Manager Steve Clarke pushes his players very hard and is an excellent coach.
The final attractive option is Stoke. Mark Hughes is revolutionising their style, and they are expected to play a more expansive and stylish brand of football. Stoke don’t have any attacking threat to speak of, so Zaha would be responsible for generating the kind of sparkle that they need.
Although there is a lot to be said for keeping Zaha at United; working with a manager like Moyes and senior pros like Giggs, Ferdinand, Van Persie etc, he is at an age where not playing regularly will stunt his career. Welbeck and Cleverley had successful loan spells at this age and came back ready for the first team.
Stoke, Everton or West Brom would be excellent places for Zaha to go on loan this season. All three have managers in the David Moyes mould. They push their players hard and expect them improve, so they wouldn’t stand for him grandstanding because he’s a United player, and all play a brand of football that will aid his development. They are the types of environments that push players to get better and if he takes advantage of the opportunity he could come back ready to be a megastar at Man United.