You’d be hard pressed to find a player who better encapsulates what the Premier League is than Wilfried Zaha. We are talking about a genuine Champions League–caliber player who, in almost a decade at Crystal Palace, has never finished a top-flight season higher than 10th place. He’s one of the game’s elite dribblers, a ferocious force who has the obsessive hunger to damage opposing defenses that marks all the most ruthless attackers, and he’s done all that dribbling and terrorizing and scoring exclusively from the middle of the table. This era of the Premier League is defined by its depth, the quality that runs strong and consistently from the top of the league almost down to the very bottom. And a team like Crystal Palace having and keeping a player like Wilfried Zaha is the perfect example of this.
Palace has started the season brightly, which means Zaha has, too. (Note that the opposite isn’t always true. Zaha can and often has played well while the team has struggled. That’s the life of a great player on a mediocre team—usually, you help it more than it helps you.) After a disappointing but understandable 2–0 loss in the season opener against the whirring buzzsaw that is Arsenal, the Eagles have gotten a pair of impressive results. First, there was a well-earned 1–1 draw against Liverpool last week, followed by a comprehensive 3–1 victory over Aston Villa on Saturday. Zaha has scored three of those four Palace goals, and, as usual, has been at the heart of most of Palace’s dangerous attacks. Against Villa especially, the Ivory Coast international was fantastic.
I’m always impressed by how exact Zaha’s touches with the ball are. I think there is a certain level of technical excellence a player can reach at which point he can focus solely on what he wants to do and not how to do it. It lets you skip a step of communication. Rather than telling your feet what they need to do in order to get the ball to go where you want, you can talk directly to the ball, knowing your feet will translate automatically. Zaha is at that level, and it allows him to think and act much faster and more precisely than the players trying to stop him.
Just look at the touches on his first goal. His first touch settles the ball and gets it running in front of him and centrally, giving him time to shrug off a defender’s challenge and speed down towards goal. His second touch takes him wide, which breaks the second defender’s angle on the ball and forces the keeper to reset his positioning. His third touch takes him even wider, seemingly too wide for a good look at goal, but it allows him to straighten his stride and drag the keeper further out and, with a thrust of his weaker left foot, lets him find the far corner of the net. A masterclass in measured touches, each one with a specific intention, the whole plan working just as designed.
And none of those were even Zaha’s finest touch of the match. That honor goes to this stupefying first-time outside-of-the-foot wall-pass through-ball that sparked Palace’s gorgeous, match-killing goal:
Two thoughts always come to mind whenever I watch Zaha play. First, the obvious: Holy shit, this guy is good. Then, the less direct: How is he still at Crystal Palace? If a player of his talent staying so long at a mid-table club is part of what makes the Premier League so good, then it’s that same goodness that has Zaha stuck where he is.
By dint of being a perennially mid-table club in England, Crystal Palace is a small club on the greater European scene. But at the same time, by dint of being a perennially mid-table club in England, Crystal Palace is also rich. So rich that it can afford to turn down very large transfer fees for players it wants to keep, and also rich enough to keep those players happy with sizable contracts. There are maybe only a dozen clubs in the world that could even in theory pay both the type of fee Palace would demand—probably something around £80 million—and the kind of salary Zaha would ask for. Those dozen or so clubs consist of the five or six biggest teams on the continent, plus the six or seven huge and/or rich English clubs.
Zaha is great, but he’s probably not good enough to star for a Real Madrid or a PSG or a Liverpool, so those clubs are out as suitors. Of the clubs that match his talent level—the secondary clubs around Europe, the likes of Atlético Madrid, Borussia Dortmund, Napoli, etc.—none of them could realistically afford him. That leaves just a few English clubs with the wherewithal and potential desire to sign him. Unfortunately, Zaha is very good at a position—left wing—where there are many very good players, most of whom either already play for clubs that might be interested in Zaha or could be acquired much more cheaply. That makes Zaha something of a king of without a befitting throne, a Champions League–caliber player who the vast majority of Champions League clubs can’t afford. He’s trapped in a Crystal Palace that can’t give him what he deserves but also isn’t at much risk of losing him.
There are of course worse fates. Zaha joined Crystal Palace at 12 years old, and outside his year-and-a-half stint on Manchester United’s books early in his career, he has remained with Palace throughout. He’ll turn 30 in a couple months. If the stars were ever going to align and get him a move up to a Tottenham or an Arsenal, it probably would’ve happened already. Zaha will go down as one of the greatest figures in Palace history, the team’s star during what, for Palace, should be seen as a triumphant decade of consistent top-flight play, the player who was probably too good for the club but somehow stuck around anyway. Zaha can mean all that to his club, and can stand as arguably the prime example of the Premier League’s top-to-bottom financial might. He may be stuck in the middle, but there’s glory to be found there, too.