Roy Hodgson was being eminently reasonable. Coronavirus had sidelined Wilfried Zaha and, lacking their idiosyncratic talisman, Crystal Palace had lost at Burnley on Monday. “You always miss your quality players but there is no guarantee he would have had a great game,” said Hodgson.
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One match is a small sample size. Michy Batshuayi and Christian Benteke, who filled Zaha’s spot in attack missed chances that perhaps Palace’s top scorer would have taken. Yet it required a stunning save by Nick Pope to deny the Belgian an equaliser. It is very possible Palace could have prevailed without Zaha.
But the broader trend is that they do not: this was a 14th defeat in the last 16 games he has missed. The statistics suggest they are a mediocre team without him, shorn of the spark required to get results. And if the numbers refute one argument that has a particular pertinence in every transfer window, they also illustrate how footballers’ value varies: not just according to performance, but to the circumstances.
It is undeniable Zaha is both a fine servant to Palace and a player who would have gone had he got his way. There is a theory that it would benefit them: an ageing team requires rejuvenation at some point and selling Zaha would enable Palace to buy three or four players, sacrificing their best individual to strengthen the collective. And yet it is safe to assume any arrivals would lack his X-factor or fundamentality to their approach. A broadly effective blueprint works because of his pace on the break. It is fair to critique Zaha for a lack of goals – albeit not this season – but he has a huge indirect influence.
Palace have priced him out of a move. Their demands for £80 million have gone unrealised and always will now Zaha is 28; suitors have gone for younger, cheaper or more prolific alternatives. Zaha might be a squad player at an elite club. He certainly would not have much resale value if he spent four years there. He isn’t worth £80 million.
Or he isn’t to anyone else, anyway. It is easy to ascribe a value to a footballer in the manner of a house or a car without reflecting on what lies behind the numbers. The temptation to castigate Palace for their inflated demands should be mitigated by the recognition of his importance to them. It is part financial, part tactical, part symbolic. Premier League status comes with a guarantee of £100 million a year in broadcast revenue and, even when Zaha isn’t scoring, he represents the surest way of securing it.
Palace are in their longest spell of top-flight football in their history. They have taken between 41 and 49 points in each of those six completed seasons. Despite the occasionally ill-advised appointment – Frank de Boer’s attempt to alter their style of play was soon deemed a mistake – the formula pursued, with the occasional alteration, by Tony Pulis, Alan Pardew, Sam Allardyce and Hodgson has reaped consistent rewards. Zaha is integral to it, in a way he might not be elsewhere. It is easy to see how his talent could entice the elite, and managers from Mauricio Pochettino to Unai Emery have wanted him, but harder to know definitively if he would be the difference between fifth and fourth, or second and first. At Palace, it is easier to argue he is the difference between safety and a survival fight that could end in a costly demotion.
Then comes the intangible element. It is tough to put a value on the excitement he can offer, or the identity he provides; in an era when the gulf between the best and the rest is (normally, anyway) greater, players of his ilk can offer reasons to support clubs whose seasons almost certainly will not end with silverware. Perhaps a price cannot be put on that. But whatever the transfer fee if and when he eventually leaves Selhurst Park, Zaha will have been worth more to Palace than he would have been to any other club.
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