Van Gaal puts Zaha in finishing school
If anyone stands to benefit from the rigorous tactical approach that has marked Louis van Gaal's brief time in charge of Manchester United, then it is Wilfried Zaha. The winger, following two excellent years at Crystal Palace, might have been expected to use last season to press his claims for inclusion in England's World Cup squad for Brazil. Instead, he spent it largely invisible, either at the fringes of the first-team squad or mostly on the bench while on loan at Cardiff City. When Manchester United spent 15 million pounds on him in 2013, this is not the result that they, or he, envisaged.
It seems that Zaha's year was poor for a couple of reasons. The first was his application, evidenced by a series of reports about his failure to keep good time when arriving at training. Zaha denies the claims and insisted during United's preseason campaign that he and David Moyes did not see eye to eye. "If you are not the manager's cup of tea you can't do anything about it," he revealed. "There was nothing I could do. It was definitely not my attitude. The manager had his way of playing and maybe I just didn't suit it."
However, his subsequent failure to impress at Cardiff was even more alarming; the only mitigation being that a relegation battle is probably not the best place for a disaffected winger to redeem himself.
The second reason is Zaha's decision-making, and specifically his ability to retain the ball in the final third. Germany's Mesut Ozil attracted plenty of criticism from the British media during his country's progress towards victory in the World Cup, but a defining feature of his tournament was the fact that he was able to keep the ball high up the pitch, allowing his team to build attacks from this dangerous platform. The very best footballers will carry the ball deep into such areas and then lay it off simply.
However Zaha, as he himself has acknowledged, has a tendency to over-elaborate and then lose possession. It is a trait that he will have to shake in order to survive under Van Gaal.
In this context it was notable that, of all his players, Van Gaal took the longest to give Zaha a chance to impress on the club's U.S. tour. When he did so, for the second half in a penalty shootout win over Inter Milan, the message was clear: This was an audition of sorts for Zaha's future at Manchester United.
What's more, given that the team will be using a 3-5-2 formation, Zaha cannot occupy the flanks; he will have to operate as a striker. This is a doubly tall order for the young forward: first, because he has never truly played there before; second, because he is competing with Wayne Rooney, Danny Welbeck, Robin van Persie and Javier Hernandez, four international strikers, for one of only two spots.
Despite the pressure that he was under against Inter Milan, Zaha produced an encouraging performance, enough to suggest that he may be a dangerous impact substitute this season. He got free of his marker both on the break and during more static periods of play and, on one occasion, could have scored had he had the confidence to shoot earlier. He looked tentative at first, but grew in influence throughout -- enough for Van Gaal to declare himself satisfied with his night's work.
Zaha's acceleration and capacity to improvise will be valuable assets to his squad, particularly against tiring defences. Van Gaal's comments about his hard work in training sessions suggest a man who is willing to learn, perhaps humbled by the realisation that, if he does not extend himself this year, then he will have lost the opportunity of a lifetime -- and he will have no one to blame but himself.
Can Zaha make it as a striker? His strike rate, largely at the lower level of the Championship, identifies him as an "occasional" rather than "prolific" goal threat, with 18 goals in 158 matches. In his favour, there are the two goals that he scored against Brighton and Hove Albion in the Championship playoffs in his final year at Crystal Palace, in an environment as challenging as a young player could find himself. One of those was particularly eye-catching, a swivel and shot which bore the accomplishment of a natural finisher.
Now, however, Zaha has a great asset in his corner: the tutelage of Van Gaal (a man who can mould a mercurial talent like no other). Regardless of his struggles last season, Zaha remains someone for whom Sir Alex Ferguson saw fit to pay a huge sum, and whose ability to unravel a defence makes him the rarest of talents. There is a new headmaster in town; hopefully for Zaha the next 12 months will be his finishing school.