Zaha hits the ground running

Wilfried Zaha

It was the simplest of finishes – Wilfried Zaha stroking home with a soft instep to score into Kim Jin-Hyeon’s unguarded net as Manchester United drew with Cerezo Osaka on Friday night. Zaha’s goal was the last of four in an entertaining encounter as the Reds once again struggled to overcome limited opposition on tour. Yet, the strike could prove as important as any on tour – and a substantial boost to a youngster still finding his feet at the club.

After all, it can be no easy task joining United. The club’s sometimes chaotic summer demonstrates as much, with substantial change in the backroom accompanied by very little successful activity in the transfer market.

Meanwhile, David Moyes’ players will travel more than 25,000 miles before the Premier League kicks off in anger on 17 August. Along the way the side has lost twice to limited opposition, beating only Liam Miller’s A-League All Stars a fortnight ago. Yes, the Australians were that good.

Indeed, in a summer of some frustration both on and off the field a shining light could be the form of the new acquisition. The 20-year-old winger signed from Crystal Palace last January, but only joined the United squad this summer after spending five months on loan with the south London club.

Zaha has already made an impact and United’s investment of more than £15 million to bring the Abidjan-born winger to the club looks sound business, with the English under-21 international surely forcing his way into Moyes’ first team planning.

There are no guarantees of course, but with the youngster having featured in each of United’s tour games – more than two hours on-pitch time to date – Zaha will at a minimum make the bench for the Reds’ fixture against Swansea City in 21 days’ time. He might improve on that.

It takes not much to gain a place in United’s midfield, cynics will add. After all wide areas ran central midfield close as the most dysfunctional area of Sir Alex Ferguson’s squad last season. While Nani fell foul of an ongoing disagreement with the Scot, Antonio Valencia’s form and confidence fell off the metaphorical cliff, while Ashley Young spent much of the campaign in treatment. Plus ça change.

The new season will begin in much the same fashion with none of Nani, Young or Valencia on tour. The trio will struggle to make the new campaign match sharp.

Nani may well be sold this summer should United find a suitable buyer, while Young has rarely offered anything superseding the mediocre in two seasons at the club. Valencia has earned another shot at redemption, but there can be no repeat of the Ecuadorian’s disastrous performances of last season.

Little wonder Zaha has firmly rejected newspaper speculation of a move away from United on loan this season. Unless the club spends on a new winger this summer – and it doesn’t look likely – a place in Moyes’ side is there for the taking.

“My target is to get minutes during the season,” said the youngster on Friday.

“For my first season in Manchester, I don’t want to go out on loan. I just want to play when I get the chance. There are bigger players than me here, so getting minutes will just do me fine.

“[The tour] has been enjoyable. It’s the first time I’ve been away with everyone and I’m getting to know them and bond with them. I was awestruck when I first came. But just being around the other players makes me know they are down-to-earth players. They are just like me, really. They have made me feel at home. I feel like a Manchester United player.”

In that there is a humility rare in the modern footballer. Born in the Ivory Coast, Zaha moved to Croydon with his family when he was just four. He has never returned to the motherland, but as the eighth of nine children in a family seeking a better life, Zaha has his feet firmly grounded.

But those toes twinkle on the field when allied to a range of skills that should bring the Old Trafford ground to its feet this season. Starting wide, Zaha boasts a natural tendency to drift inside, using genuine pace and tight close control to pull his opponents out of position. The limited goal output to date – just eight in 50 games for Palace last season – should increase as the player matures.

“I like to drift into midfield so, if I do, [defenders] won’t be able to stick with me. Once I get turned that gives me the chance to do what I do,” Zaha told the Guardian last season.

“I have different tricks. If someone’s on my back, I’ll stand on the ball and put it in a position where the guy behind me can’t see where it is. That gives me a chance to roll him whichever way I want. I’m always thinking ahead.”

Zaha’s maturity of thought already compares favourably to the frustrating decision-making that Nani has enhanced only marginally in six seasons at Old Trafford. Should the youngster add both goals and assists to his game then a rapid promotion to Moyes’ first XI will surprise few.

True, there is work to be done. Not least on improving that output, while Premier League defenders are unlikely to be quite as forgiving as those in the Championship.

But praise has already been garnered from inside the United camp. It is to be expected, perhaps, but few have been as excited about a new youthful acquisition since Cristiano Ronaldo joined in 2003.

Ronaldo’s ascent to stardom was all but guaranteed – a once-in-a-generation talent exposed on debut against Bolton Wanderers a decade ago. Zaha comes with no such assurance, but says United veteran Rio Ferdinand, the player’s work ethic and natural talent bode well.

“Wilfried is a fantastic talent. That is why you pay £15 million for a kid,” said the defender.

“He is raw, with great individual skills and the early indications are that he is a hard worker. He wants to be a top footballer and he wants to improve. With those attributes, that desire and the influences he will have at this club, hopefully we will have a top player on our hands.

“Wilfried can take people on from a standing start. He is quick and direct but what has surprised me more is that he gets his shots off. He is a winger who has a hunger to get inside and drive into the opponents’ box. That is a good thing to have.”

The player is likely to feature against Kitchee in Hong Kong on Tuesday, before the Moyes’ squad heads back to Europe for games against AIK in Stockholm and Ferdinand’s testimonial against Sevilla at Old Trafford.  Zaha already looks as sharp as any on tour.

“He has been quite quiet because he is still getting to know everybody, but he has had an impact in the games,” said new United manager Moyes.

“We want to try and bring him along nicely. He showed the players that he can make things happen. We want all players at Manchester United to score goals and he has come up with an important one.”

Add more in the upcoming trio of fixtures and Zaha might well earn a spot in the Community Shield fixture with Wigan Athletic on 11 August. It is an exciting prospect in an otherwise underwhelming summer.

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  • http://www.oldtraffordfaithful.com Jordan

    He has had a great pre-season tour, and in a way he reminds me very much of a young Ronaldo. If he keeps his head screwed on Zaha has the potential to become a top top player.