How a change of role has seen Wilfried Zaha flourish at Crystal Palace this season

LONDON, ENGLAND - OCTOBER 28: Wilfried Zaha of Crystal Palace reacts during the Premier League match between Crystal Palace and West Ham United at Selhurst Park on October 28, 2017 in London, England. (Photo by Jordan Mansfield/Getty Images)

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Wilfried Zaha has looked like a man reborn this season for Crystal Palace. Something seems to have changed from last season when he featured in every Premier League game for his team but only scored 4 goals.

This season, however, he is back among the goals. The Ivorian forward has 9 goals in the league already. On top of that, he has 2 assists to his name, meaning that the former Manchester United forward averages a Premier League goal contribution every 151 minutes for Palace, as compared to every 364 minutes last season.

What has changed?

To answer that question in a simple way, Wilfried Zaha now plays more centrally for Crystal Palace. Last season, he was majorly deployed on the wings. The Ivorian played on both flanks, but was usually found more on the left-hand side.

This is evident in the image below. The heatmap from his last Premier League season makes it evident that the forward was hugging the touchline more. You can even see a bunch of activity in his own half, meaning he had to drop back to defend and help out his left-back.

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Wilfried Zaha during the 2019/20 Premier League season. (WhoScored)

Now let us see what has changed this season. Zaha’s heatmap from this Premier League season makes it evident that he is playing more centrally. While he still drifts to the left-hand side, he is seeing more action centrally, outside the box. The image below also shows that his activity in his own half has reduced from last season.

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Wilfried Zaha during 2020/21 Premier League season. (WhoScored)

His responsibility in the defensive side of the game has dropped. That is evident from his defensive stats this season. He is intercepting lesser, tackling lesser, and is competing in fewer duels. This means that he is seeing more time in his own half of the pitch without worrying too much about defending.

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A perfect example is to compare his touches against Tottenham Hotspur at Selhurst Park last season, and this season. It is evident he is now a more central player, and takes lesser touches in defence, which gives him more attacking space and freedom.

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Wilfried Zaha vs Spurs in July 2020 in Premier League. (WhoScored)
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Wilfried Zaha vs Spurs in December 2020 in Premier League. (WhoScored)

Is it helping the team?

Surely, this is helping. He is their top scorer in the league this season and a major reason why they are clear of the relegation zone (13th place after 25 league games). Only one out of his 11 direct goal contributions has come in a game that Palace have lost.

As for Zaha, his attacking numbers are on the up (as you can see in the image below). Zaha’s form is undoubtedly helping the Palace side. After all, Zaha already has more goals now as their top scorer than what striker Jordan Ayew had in the whole of last season.

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So it seems like this is one tactic that Palace manager Roy Hodgson should continue sticking to. He can pair him up with Ayew, as well as Benteke. Zaha’s current role seems to be working, and hence, there is no reason why it should not to be adhered to.

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Zaha has not scored or assisted in all 3 games he has played as a winger this season. Apart from this, Palace have lost 5 of the 6 games the Ivorian has missed through injury, scoring in just one game.

However, this is not to say that Zaha is the only reason why Palace are flourishing. Nevertheless, it is evident that the Eagles talisman’s new-found form is benefiting his team and himself.