Arsenal chased Wilfried Zaha hard last summer. In the end, they settled for Nicolas Pepe. But after a down year in the Premier League, can the Crystal Palace winger still be a good signing?
Arsenal were very keen to sign Wilfried Zaha last summer. They made a £40 million offer, upped it to £50 million, and then reportedly made one last-ditch attempt at £65 million, all of which were rejected by Crystal Palace, who were indignant that Zaha was worth £80 million.
Many people rightly baulked at that figure, including the Gunners. And so the club decided to turn to other targets, eventually settling on Nicolas Pepe for £72 million, another fast-dribbling, skilful winger, but more productive having scored more than 20 goals in Ligue 1 and, at 24, a significantly more alluring age.
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Fast forward a year and much has changed. Pepe has largely underwhelmed, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang has started on the left flank, something that has angered many Arsenal fans, though perhaps unjustifiably, while Zaha has not lived up to his expectations at Palace, either, totalling just three goals and three assists in the Premier League this season.
Nevertheless, with Aubameyang likely on his way out of the club and Arsenal therefore in need of a replacement, ideally a winger who can dribble, create and score while linking up with a central attacker, could Zaha still be a good signing, just a year after the initial approach was made? Well, like last summer, it all depends on the context.
Zaha’s production has depreciated this season. But he has never been the most productive player when it comes to goals and assists, largely because Palace is not the most productive attacking team. Last season, for instance, he scored 10 goals and added five assists. But Palace only scored 51 goals in total. The year prior, Zaha scored nine goals with three assists, but Palace only scored 45 goals.
His production has not been particularly inspiring, but there is a very important and yet difficult question to ask: What happens when he is inserted into a team with other weapons around him such that the opposing defence cannot focus on his threat, as is the case at Palace? It is impossible to say, but the potential of releasing Zaha in situations against isolated defenders with more talented attackers around him is what Arsenal would be investing in.
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It is these situations that Zaha’s dribbling would come to the fore. The winger averages 7.7 dribble attempts per 90 minutes. Of Premier League players that have played at least 1,000 minutes, only Adama Traore and Allan Saint-Maximin attempt more. His 4.8 successful dribbles per 90 also rank third in the Premier League. In comparison to Pepe, he attempts 1.2 more dribbles per 90, completes 1.1 more dribbles per 90, and his dribble success rate is 5.3% higher, which is a substantial difference. He is also the second-most fouled player per 90 minutes in the Premier League, another illustration of his quick feet, sharp change of direction, and skilful dribbling.
There are issues, however. Zaha will turn 28 in November. He still has three years remaining on his contract and despite a down year, Palace are not likely to drop the price too much. They have little incentive to sell given how dependent they are on the Ivorian. Do Arsenal really want to invest another £60-plus million in a player right in his prime that could leave them stuck in an Aubameyang-like situation in two or three years time? With younger and cheaper players available, Zaha might not be the most prudent investment.
And so, there are definite pros and cons to weigh up. The prospect is salivating. Inserting a player with Zaha’s dribbling skills, speed and goalscoring potential into the Arsenal team, opposite of Pepe, forcing teams to shift defensive focus to one or the other, thereby providing one with space to drive at an isolated defender, is extremely exciting to consider. But there are pitfalls. Price, age, production. Zaha is far from the perfect target, as Arsenal found out a year ago.