Wilfried Zaha isn't a diver. We know this. Pundits know this. And yet the criticism keeps coming. Here's Josh Esaw making a case for Palace's Boy Wonder.
It seems Selhurst Park is still the place where big teams dreams come grinding to a sudden halt. It was Pep Guardiola’s dazzling Manchester City who learnt the hard way how frustrating a trip to SE25 can be, when the cauldron of noise erupts and the Palace faithful bind together in a potion of confident resilience.
The Catalan cut a stylish yet agitated figure in the opposition dug out as a much-altered Palace side, learnt the lessons of Arsenal and delivered a simple yet effective midfield strategy that pressed higher, quicker and more cohesively in stopping the best team in Europe getting into any kind of rhythm. It was not the finest performance from the runaway league leaders, but much credit should have gone to the Eagles in the performance they produced, especially with so many games in such a short space of time.
However much of the headlines after the game begun to revolve around a last-minute penalty awarded to Palace by referee Jon Moss for a foul on Wilfried Zaha by Raheem Sterling. The incident, which was almost a carbon copy of the penalty won by Sterling for Manchester City in their defeat of Arsenal, reignited vociferous claims from sections of the media that Wilfried Zaha had dived and dives consistently.
The incident was apparently examined by the new diving commission after the game and it was decided that Zaha had no case to answer, yet if anything this seemed to cause the voices accusing Zaha to amplify rather than decrease, with national newspapers running stories where ex referees and former pros single out and chastise Zaha in a way that seems factually baseless and more importantly, these voices seem to show a fundamental misunderstanding of the way in which Wilfried Zaha plays football.
Much of the criticism of Zaha cites the Ivorian as a direct and fast winger, who beats players for speed, which is largely not the case. unlike fellow Palace winger Andros Townsend, Zaha’s game is largely not built on pace.
Wilfried Zaha’s biggest attribute is largely his electrifying footwork. The way in which Zaha beats full backs is not from sprinting past them, but from juggling a football between his two feet and maintaining control whilst on the move, a skill at which, he is statistically one of the best in the world at. Zaha’s movement is direct, but his skill is using his natural ability to protect the ball until a defender attempts to tackle him and Zaha can move past the player into the space created from dragging the defender out of the line.
This technique is incredibly difficult for defenders to stop within the rules because of the precision and accuracy in timing tackles that is needed. The amount of fouls Zaha suffers is no surprise and probably largely unintentional on the part of the opposition because in full flow Zaha moves in such a way that creates and dictates the pace of that portion of the game. Any slight mis-timed attempt at the ball is going to result in the defender hacking at Zaha’s leg or clipping his ankle because of the speed at which he moves his feet around the ball.
Fouls are largely miss timed rather than malicious, however the sheer number of these fouls and the fact Zaha plays for somewhat of an unfashionable side, seems to contribute to this idea that somehow, to get fouled as much as he does he must be diving. Also given the nature of the fluidity of Zaha’s game and his love of playing for Palace, it’s often frustrating for the winger when he is abruptly halted and he usually aims this ire at the referee.
It’s probably a fair assessment that Zaha tends to go down a lot and that not all of these are fouls.The quick shifts of balance involved in the way he plays are always going to make him slightly susceptible to going over and his tendency to aggressively appeal every time for a decision, where he may be needs to learn to play the percentage more, hinders rather than helps his case but to suggest that he is somehow a cheat or attempting to deceive referees in the same manner as players who go down without any contact to get a decision seems largely unfair and irrational and is more based in the English games traditionally suspicion of skilful players as somehow being a luxury or as show offs rather than an admiration of natural ability outside of the elite clubs.
Zaha is easily having his best season yet and establishing himself as one of the best talents in the Premier League. His talismanic presence is key to Palace’s survival hopes and it seems if he keeps improving at the current rate the sky is the limit for him. He’s still shaking off the shackles of an unfair reputation. Zaha continues to be a misunderstood maverick rather than some kind of devious conman and hopefully he’ll soon get the wider recognition and understanding from the English game, that he deserves.