By Jack Gaughan at Old Trafford
If, as expected, Wilfried Zaha moves to Manchester United in time for next season, if not before, it will send shockwaves to the club’s underperforming wide men, Nani and Antonio Valencia.
Not because the Crystal Palace winger possesses much more than the pair, but that his capture serves as a metaphorical kick up the backside by Sir Alex Ferguson, who has seen the productivity of his side’s wide play diminish this season.
An exciting midfielder skipping beyond his marker to whip a wicked ball in is usually a hallmark of great United teams. Last season Valencia assisted 15 goals from the right. So far this, he has mustered just four. Nani’s statistics show 12 during the last campaign and just the one this.
But while those figures can be misleading – Nani has only played 10 games in 2012-13, for example – they still paint a picture of a duo who are struggling. Valencia will forever pose a threat because his pace remains an asset, but he now lacks the confidence to continuingly beat a man throughout a 90 minutes. The notion that he might is more apparent and worrying for opposing managers than the actual act itself.
Nani, on the other hand, relies on his ability to go both ways, to keep defenders guessing. The Portuguese winger still has that in his locker, and showed it in the 1-0 FA Cup third round replay win against West Ham on Wednesday night, but constantly takes the wrong option.
That was showcased in the 39thminute when he rounded Jordan Spence with ease before looking up into the box for players to pick out. He needn’t have bothered, ignoring both Wayne Rooney and Chicharito, as his wild 25-yard strike ballooned over Jussi Jaaskelainen’s goal and into the stands.
Perhaps in Nani’s case it is the sin of trying too hard, trying to force his way back into the manager’s permanent plans, but with little opportunity to do so. For Valencia, his chronic lack of a final ball in recent months must be a cause for serious concern at Old Trafford.
That is where Zaha comes in. Chief executive David Gill said on Wednesday: “He’s [Zaha] one of the players we’re looking at. But even if we did do something with Zaha, that would be for the summer.”
The admission comes after Goal.com exclusively revealed earlier this week that both the Premier League leaders and Arsenal were set to hold talks with Crystal Palace as they attempt to thrash out a deal for the promising youngster.
United could do a deal this January and loan the player back to Ian Holloway’s Palace, who are gunning for promotion to the Premier League, for the remainder of the campaign. The detail is somewhat immaterial – what the signing would do is force the more established flair wingers, Ashley Young included, to have a look at themselves and adjust accordingly. Or at least hopefully, from a United point of view.
Young, for his part, seems to have got a touch of his boastfulness back and is a genuine threat, albeit without the statistics (three assists thus far) to back it up.
What Zaha has is a fresh-faced naivety about how to play the game. The will to entertain, driving at the opposition with bamboozling footwork before looking to score, or to play a team-mate in on goal. There is a carefree attitude to the consequences of fluffing his lines; no worries as to the penalties his one trick too many may have. That, in a 20-year-old, is hardly ground-breaking given he has yet to truly learn the game, but when you have the belief that you are better than your opposite number – with the skill to marry up that swagger – it usually yields results.
Zaha’s recent outlandish claims as to how good he actually is were taken out of context, but the message behind it portrays an individual who has the right measure of arrogance to become a real hit at such an illustrious club. Nani and Valencia in particularly should remember what got them to where they are: playing in front of packed houses at the most expectant club in the country. Why should they be upstaged by a young pretender? They have the tools, but the real crux of the problem is how to heave them back.
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