Arsenal: Why Wilfried Zaha makes little sense

LONDON, ENGLAND - MAY 12: Wilfried Zaha of Crystal Palace shoots during the Premier League match between Crystal Palace and AFC Bournemouth at Selhurst Park on May 12, 2019 in London, United Kingdom. (Photo by Steve Bardens/Getty Images)
LONDON, ENGLAND - MAY 12: Wilfried Zaha of Crystal Palace shoots during the Premier League match between Crystal Palace and AFC Bournemouth at Selhurst Park on May 12, 2019 in London, United Kingdom. (Photo by Steve Bardens/Getty Images) /

Wilfried Zaha has been in the headlines recently regarding a purported move to Arsenal. The Gunners, however, should take a step back and reconsider their pursuit of Zaha before coming anywhere close to Crystal Palace’s £80 million valuation.

In this piece, I’m going to argue that Wilfried Zaha to Arsenal would be a bad transfer, but I am by no means saying that he is a bad player. Zaha is a very talented footballer and has become a one-man team of sorts during his spell at Crystal Palace. But, and this is true of all transfers, just because he is good at Palace does not mean he would be good for Arsenal.

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To evaluate a potential transfer, one must consider a variety of factors. Firstly, squad improvement, whether or not the quality of the squad is markedly better as a result of the player’s arrival. Secondly, fit, how well the player fits into the squad and meshes with the playstyles of his teammates. And finally, price, whether or not the player is worth what they will be costing and if the money allocated to their transfer could be better spent. For me, the Zaha transfer doesn’t make any sense when these factors are taken into consideration.

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Starting with the subject of squad improvement, we need to explore what kind of player Zaha is, what he does well, what his game lacks, and how that would translate itself to the Arsenal squad. Most of what Zaha does well is pretty obvious to anyone who has seen him play, and it has to do with his ability to beat a defender. He is both a technical and incredibly pacy dribbler, a combination which allows him to carry the ball past opponents with relative regularity. In the 2018/2019 season, Zaha completed an impressive, albeit inefficient, 3.4 successful dribbles per 90 minutes, the second highest rate in the Premier League behind only Eden Hazard’s 3.7 per 90.

These dribbles were vital to Crystal Palace last season, as lacking any kind of talented progressive passer, Zaha was expected to do almost all of the ball progression for the Eagles. Their style of play was often predicated upon Zaha receiving the ball in a wide area following an opposition turnover, beating a man and running the ball the length of the pitch before passing to a teammate or taking on a shot himself. Zaha was probably more essential to Palace than any other individual was to their club in 2018/2019. However, aside from his obvious ability with the ball at his feet, he provides very little of value that Arsenal would want.

While superficially Zaha appears to have developed a solid end product, scoring 10 and assisting five in around 3000 league minutes in 2018/2019, a closer look at his underlying numbers, specifically Expected Goals and Expected Assists, tells a very different story.

Per UnderStat, in the season just gone, Zaha had a per-90 minute xG value of 0.19; meaning, that based upon the quality and quantity of shots he was taking, he would be expected to score only around six goals in a season, about once every 5 matches. His xA figures are no better, with Zaha putting up a per-90 minute xA of 0.16, meaning he would only be expected to assist a teammate once every six matches, or five times all season, which is right on the figure he ended up with. These numbers paint Zaha being neither particularly prolific nor creative; he is all flashy dribbling and no end product, someone who likely would not markedly improve the Arsenal squad, especially considering his combined xG+xA of 0.35 was worse than that of Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang (0.93), Henrikh Mkhitaryan (0.64), Alexandre Lacazette(0.58), Alex Iwobi(0.52), and Aaron Ramsey (0.41) .

Now for the issue of fit, or perhaps, the lack thereof. During his time at Palace, Zaha has played as more of a goalscorer, rather than a creator. He often passes up on opportunities to generate chances for his teammates in order to have a shot himself, which is fine in a Crystal Palace team devoid of a competent forward, but not at Arsenal, a club which boasts two of the best strikers in the league in Aubameyang and Lacazette.

At Arsenal, I would much rather the shots Zaha takes go to Lacazette or Aubameyang, players who have proven themselves to be far more competent goalscorers. What Arsenal need is a wide creator, someone who can consistently and reliably provide the strikers with quality chances to score, something that Zaha has never done, nor shown any aptitude for — and given that he is 26 and is largely done developing as a player — and likely will never be able to do.

Finally, for the most obvious reason the Zaha transfer should not happen, price. According to most news outlets, Arsenal would need to spend close to £80 million. That figure would be their record signing by some distance, tied for eleventh on the list of the most expensive transfers of all-time. Zaha is simply not worth that kind of a fee, especially for a club as cash-strapped as Arsenal. It just makes no sense. This is the biggest stumbling block to supporting a Zaha transfer.

Next. Arsenal: 3 cheaper alternatives to Wilfried Zaha. dark

To reiterate, I don’t hate Zaha as a player. I think he is a perfectly fine player with some incredible gifts, but Arsenal could find others who are both better, younger, and cheaper, if only they were willing to look.