Adam Sells’ Crystal Palace column: Wilfried Zaha is the best ever Crystal Palace player – and the numbers don’t add up on selling him


It was an interesting week in SE25 as the Wilfried Zaha summer transfer saga got underway and Crystal went to the Emirates Stadium and recorded their first victory over Arsenal in 25 years.

The win over Unai Emery’s men marked a first for Palace in the Premier League – managing to take four points off the Gunners in one season.

Getting the better of Arsenal is not something that followers of a certain age have not been used to.

In 43 years following Palace, only as a nine-year-old have I witnessed something similar – back in the 1979-80 season and the ‘Team Of The 80s’. Dave Swindlehurst deflected a Peter Nicholas strike past Pat Jennings to win the day at Selhurst Park, with a 1-1 draw in the corresponding fixture at Highbury later that season.

Since then, all Palace fans have had to savour is that victory at Highbury in 1994, courtesy of a John Salako brace, and a 3-0 win under the tutelage of Sam Allardyce a couple of years ago. Otherwise it’s been a case of the odd draw (one of which should have brought about the downfall of Arsenal’s ‘Invincibles’ when Vassilis Lakis spooned over with the goal at his mercy – remember him?) with more than a few heavy defeats.

Heavy defeats and Roy Hodgson have never been mentioned in the same sentence once during this campaign.

His team has not been beaten by more than a two-goal margin, a feat only matched by the top three in the Premier League so far.

The former England manager well and truly laid the ghost of the previous season in that part of north London when his team were completely overwhelmed, conceding four times in the opening quarter.

Roy’s boys were worthy winners and the Palace boss’ tactical nous saw the Eagles nullify the home side’s attacking intent during an excellent 45 minutes while creating a number of decent chances. Christian Benteke scoring from open play for the first time since the end of January last year.

Hodgson’s counterpart Emery responded by making two changes during the break and Mesut Ozil levelled for the home side.

At this point, one could have felt the tide turning. But the wizard that is Wilfried Zaha and the dependable James McArthur duly seized upon Arsenal’s defensive lapses.

Both took advantage of Shkodran Mustafi’s end of season generosity to put the game out reach in spite of Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang reducing the arrears.

Martin Keown provided his analysis on Sunday evening as Mustafi’s day got progressively worse, though one might wonder with some amusement what the BBC pundit’s former boss George Graham would have made of it.

Anyway, enough Arsenal talk, this was a famous Palace triumph and one that mathematically secured an unprecedented seventh successive Premier League season.

Yes, that’s right – we’ve never had it so good.

Hodgson’s narrow 4-4-2 shape – often described as unadventurous by his detractors – again came up trumps with the Benteke-Zaha combination proving too much for the Gunners’ rearguard.

Palace had an ‘out-ball’ when under pressure with Arsenal dominating possession, Benteke’s hold-up play was exceptional and there is surely no better centre-forward in terms of aerial dominance currently plying their trade in the Premier League.

The big Belgian hadn’t hit the back of the net for a calendar year, when he slammed home a late penalty in the rout of Leicester and even his fiercest critic couldn’t deny that this was reward for some very decent recent performances. Let’s hope that the goal gets the confidence flowing and Benteke can finish the campaign with a flourish.  I have long felt that he is a striker that needs a partner, and Zaha provided the perfect foil.

Photograph by Keith Gillard

Wilf was unplayable, like Benteke, providing respite during spells of pressure, receiving the ball in tight situations with his back to goal, wriggling like an eel in and out of tackles, with almost an air of contempt for anybody who tried to make a challenge.

His display was on a similar level to that at St James’ Park a fortnight earlier when it appeared the ball was under his spell.

When Wilfried is in the mood then there is no better sight. His wiry, lean, strong frame coupled with a mesmeric ability in possession makes him for me the best player ever to pull on a Palace shirt. Rather like Ian Wright, whom I would have previously bestowed the accolade, Zaha is a South London ‘street footballer’ who always has you expecting the unexpected and connects with the fanbase in a way that a local boy can.

Following his interview in a national newspaper when he stated a desire to play in the Champions League, silly season appears to be under way again with links to every club in that very same Champions League in the three days following.

A summer of back page headlines await. Will he?  Won’t he? Agents and journalists will peddle tales of the probable and possible, filling pockets and back pages accordingly.

Zaha, together with the irrepressible Aaron Wan-Bissaka, will attract attention. But I don’t anticipate Steve Parish rolling over and having his belly tickled by any club who may set their sights on the crown jewels at the Palace.

Parish has worked wonders so far and with four years remaining on a highly-lucrative contract that would eclipse many afforded by top-level clubs, it’s difficult to see anybody easily prising away Selhurst’s talisman.

Readers of this column will know that I wouldn’t sell Wilfried for £150million.

Relegation would cost £100m and then there is the rumoured 25 per cent sell-on clause negotiated when he returned after one season at Manchester United.  Every player that would be sought as a replacement would have an added premium, and could anybody realistically replace him?}

Before anybody has to worry about Wilfried and the transfer window, there are three fixtures to complete and seven points from the remaining nine available would see Palace achieve their highest points haul since returning to the Premier League.

Should they do so, the best goal difference statistic will be another record. One more clean sheet will equal the best achieved by Tony Pulis’ mean streak and Julian Speroni’s heroics back in 2013-14.

Palace sit seventh for the most attempts on goal, which again, like the previous season, is the best they have managed in the top level over the past six seasons. On the flip side they sit 15th for attempts on target.

I think these two statistics are the most telling.

For those who believe that Hodgson is underachieving, this is the area fans would be most inclined to pinpoint.

Those statistics suggest it is a personnel issue and not a lack of opportunities.

It is clear that the way the Roy has the team set up that chances have been created and not at the expense of defensive stability, which is most certainly a difficult balance to strike.

The sense of under-achievement is borne out in return of four Premier League goals for the five main strikers at his disposal. Michy Batshuayi has two, Benteke one, Jordan Ayew one with Connor Wickham yet to register, though in mitigation he has barely featured.

Alexander Sorloth has struggled for form and spent the second half of the season on loan in Belgium.

Had this group of strikers managed a few more goals between them, then surely the Eagles would be close to bringing European football to SE25. All have shown previously that they have the capability to do it at Premier League level and if this can be rectified, further progress will be made.

Firstly, it is absolute must to keep hold of the Zahas and Wan Bissakas while making a few acquisitions to an excellent group.

The level of funding in that respect remains to be seen, but given a reasonable of level of support, I think Roy has the know-how to take the club to places it has never been before.

Since his arrival the club has curbed their spending somewhat in the transfer market, which underlines the work he and his coaches have done.

A long uncomfortable summer awaits, but a strong finish and breaking a few records in the process will leave all in SE25 feeling that the future is bright.­


Adam Sells is the managing director of Sells Goalkeeper Products. He has followed the fortunes of Crystal Palace since 1976, working within the club’s academy for more than 15 years until 2013. He is a licensed intermediary, representing a number of goalkeepers including Julian Speroni.

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