Tag Wilfried Zaha

Tag Wilfried Zaha

Ferguson’s final gift

August 3, 2013 Tags: , , , Opinion 15 comments
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There was nothing on when Jesse Lingard picked up the ball 30 yards from goal. No red shirts in sight, just plenty of blue, closing in. What happened next was a mixture of the fearlessness of youth combined with individual skill. A look up, a shimmy, a drag back, and then Lingard shifted his weight to wrap his right foot around the ball, bending it into the far corner.

In many ways, it was fitting that Lingard should wrap up United’s pre-season marketing exercise tour. Whilst United’s jaunt around Australia and Asia had undoubtedly earned some extra money to line the Glazers’ pockets, it also served as an exciting window into the future. Sir Alex Ferguson may have retired, but his final gift to United was on display.

There are two things at the heart of Manchester United, woven deep into the fabric of the club: the pursuit of exciting football, and a preference for developing young players. For all the talk of big summer signings that may or, more likely, may not happen; for all the talk of Thiago, Cesc Fabregas and Mouranne Fellaini, the truth is, for most fans, the greatest thrill is seeing one of ‘our own’ flourish.

There is a special place in the club annals for the Busby Babes, George Best, Ryan Giggs, David Beckham, Paul Scholes and Gary Neville. And it’s why there will be extra pleasure at seeing Danny Welbeck flourish into a top class player over the coming years – a favourite moment last season coming when Welbeck scored in the Bernabéu.

United may not have produced another batch of youngsters to match the legendary Babes or Fergie’s Fledglings, but there has been a steady number of youngsters making the grade in recent years. The aforementioned Welbeck and Tom Cleverley played an important role in last season’s title success. Darren Fletcher, John O’Shea and Wes Brown have all won Champions League winners medals. In Brown’s case, two of them.

And as football has become a truly global game,  academy rules have changed, and it has become easier to snap up the best young talent from around the world, the definition of a ‘home grown youngster’ has widened.

Phil Jones, Chris Smalling, the Da Silva twins and David De Gea may not have grown up in United’s youth academy, but they are ‘our’ youngsters. These are players that the club has invested in; players that fans watch as they improve and fulfill their potential. After all, watching youngsters grow into top class performers is far more exciting that spending big money on established stars.

It remains to be seen how successfully David Moyes maintains the tradition of attacking football at United; the side has only periodically excited with great football since Cristiano Ronaldo left. But there are enough encouraging signs that Moyes is committed to continuing developing youth.

The first team squad that visited Thailand, Australia, Japan and Hong Kong was shorn of several regulars, but still contained Rio Ferdinand, Michael Carrick, Patrice Evra, Robin van Persie and Giggs. Yet, it was three young players who consistently impressed.

The performances of Jesse Lingard, Adnan Januzaj and Wifried Zaha this summer should offer reason to be optimistic for the future. Not just because they are young, nor even because Lingard is a product of United’s academy, but because they are genuinely exciting. Because they produce moments of individual skill. Because they are players who entertain.

Last season was thrilling in many ways. The early season comebacks, the comprehensive title victory after disappointment the previous year, and the joyous finale. But in truth United’s football wasn’t that exciting.

In recent years United have become a functional machine, a team accustomed to gaining results by being greater than the sum of its parts thanks to Ferguson’s brilliance.

It has become a machine embodied by two players on the flanks – traditionally an area of strength – who have just a single trick each, which is more often than not unsuccessful. Ashley Young and Antonio Valencia are not bad players, but they are not players who set the pulses racing. They do not get fans off their seats. And with one goal between them last season, not ones to worry opposition defenders either.

Yet Lingard, Januzaj and Zaha promise something fresh and exciting. They are players who can play across the forward line; who have excellent technique. Players who can take on a defender with skill and who make football fun to watch. And what is football if it’s not entertainment?

As the post-season drew in and the reality of a post-Ferguson United dawns, fans thoughts turned to the transfer market. Could the new manager prise the cheque-book off Malcolm Glazer’s hands and invest in one or two big signings?

Certainly, a central midfielder is a must. It has been for years. But many fans  also want to see another forward – perhaps not a striker, but an upgrade on the resources available in wide or deeper attacking areas. An advance on the maddening inconsistency of Nani and on the average served up by Young and Valencia. On Rooney’s ‘hands on hips look of frustration despite being unfit’ demeanour.

But watching United this pre-season, and witnessing the growth of three young players, may have prompted a re-think. Why should the club spend big on a new attacking player when there may be a solution already present?

This trio is not alone. Larnell Cole and Nick Powell are big talents in midfield. Will Keane is a gifted forward who will overcome a  serious knee injury. His twin brother Michael, who also played on tour, impressed on loan at Leicester City last season. And Angelo Henriquez may not have appeared for the first team yet, but he has already been capped by – and scored for – his country at full international level.

Promote youth and Young, Nani and Valencia will be kept on their toes. Meanwhile, Januzaj can cover for Shinji Kagawa in the attacking midfield role. Suddenly, Moyes’ attack looks less stodgy and far more exciting. More like a ‘proper’ United side.

These players may not make it as first team regulars. They may or may not prove to be good enough. Premier League football may be a step too far. But maybe, just maybe, some will make it. That they are gifted technically, brave and exciting in possession, ensures United fans want them go all the way.

There’s every chance that a rejuvenated Chelsea and Manchester City will leave Moyes’ outfit in the slipstream this season, with the club adjusting to the post-Ferguson era. But it doesn’t mean that the club’s identity will be lost. Instead, there’s an opportunity to build on it and to build a new, great United side.

And perhaps, with this current batch of youngsters, Ferguson has left Moyes with everything he needs to do just that.

Zaha hits the ground running

July 28, 2013 Tags: Opinion 1 comment
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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.