Zaha looks for a chance away from Old Trafford

Posted by Andy Mitten

Back in 2011, Wilfried Zaha sent a tweet asking why Cardiff, a club based in Wales, played in the “English” Championship.

It has been retweeted more than 6,000 times since then and has received another 15 minutes of fame since the Manchester United winger was linked with a loan move to the Welsh club.

When he typed that infamous message, Zaha was a few days short of his 19th birthday and playing for Crystal Palace. Since then, he has made his England debut and been transferred to Old Trafford for 15 million pounds.

And yet, he is now set to be loaned to the Premier League’s bottom club -- he had long been linked with Cardiff but an approach for him was made only recently -- after a difficult first few months at United.

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There are many questions: Why was Zaha not sent on loan at the start of the season? Why did United pay so much for a player who was then not afforded the same opportunities as others by David Moyes during the season itself?

Zaha, 21, was one of United's most impressive players in preseason. Quick and skillful, he provided the only bright spot in Moyes' first game, a friendly in Bangkok, when he came on as a sub and came closer to scoring than any other player.

He was a quiet outsider at the start of the trip who, according to former United midfielder Paddy Crerand, "looked like a little boy lost on the flight to Bangkok." (That’s Crerand who thought that the “Cesc” from Francesc Fabregas is short for “Cecil.”)

By the end of the trip, Rio Ferdinand had taken his fellow South Londoner under his wing and Zaha had settled nicely.

I spoke to Ferdinand in Yokohama and he said: “Wilfried is a great new signing. He’s a nice kid from Croydon who’s fitted in well with the team. He’s young, eager to please and wants to do well. He’s raw, but he has an unbelievable range of skills.

“I can see potential in him being a really top player if he knits it all together, works hard on the training field and learns from the senior players at the club. If he does that and listens to the coaches then he’ll have a great career.”

If ...

In United's final preseason match in Solna, Sweden, Zaha crossed for teenage debutant Angelo Henriquez to score his first goal for the club, but while Henriquez has gone on loan to Zaragoza with promising results, Zaha has stayed when it would have been wiser for him to leave temporarily.

Alex Livesey/Getty ImagesZaha has been an unused substitute nine times this season.

One month into the season Zaha, along with Shinji Kagawa, Anderson, Nani, Jonny Evans and Javier Hernandez, was in need of minutes. While the others got time to impress, the young winger did not and people began to search for reasons why.

There was the one about him and David Moyes' daughter, which was flatly denied. “Ah, but there's no smoke without fire,” said addled conspiracy theorists. There is online.

So what has gone wrong? Well, more clubs are now going for the “moneyball” approach to players -- where numbers matter -- and the first thing a technical director looks at when an agent approaches him about a player is his statistics: How many games he's starting, how many he's finishing and then, if he's an attacking player, his goals and assists record.

Check Zaha's stats and they are far from impressive. Last season, he was an attacking player in a side which won promotion but scored just six goals in 43 league games and made 10 assists. The season before? Six goals in 41 with seven assists. There was no improvement.

I spoke to an agent about his situation. "Going off his stats, he doesn't look a [15-million-pound] player," he said bluntly. "At Palace he went backward in terms of his goals-to-games ratio."

Although Zaha was paid for with money from David Moyes' budget, the truth is he was bought by Sir Alex Ferguson, who embraced statistics but had also always trusted his judgment with a player.

For example, no data could account for the assessment that made 16-year-old Lee Sharpe so appealing when he was playing for Torquay against Colchester one Friday night in 1988.

“He was quick enough to catch pigeons and had good physical lines," Ferguson said. "An excellent crosser of the ball, he was brave enough to take advantage of that and his other assets.”

Despite the underwhelming stats, the Zaha transfer was largely lauded, as United again bought an emerging English talent, who had helped Crystal Palace win at Old Trafford in the League Cup in November 2011.

I saw him stand out with my own eyes in a game at The Valley last season when he went past players with ease and was as impressive as Palace's away support.

Former Palace player -- and United fan -- James Scowcroft was also a fan and wrote in United We Stand: "He’s the closest I’ve seen to Cristiano Ronaldo in ability to beat a defender, maybe even better at times, but he’s yet to add an end product to his game like Ronaldo.

“He’s the greatest youngster I’ve ever seen, but he’s not the finished article yet. Palace to United is a step up that’s huge not only ability-wise, but mentally.

"If he can fulfill his promise, then United fans could be in for a real treat and have a new star on their hands and it will be 15 million pounds extremely well spent."

Scowcroft remembers seeing Zaha as a youth player at Palace.

"I was receiving treatment for an injury one Saturday morning, after which I wandered over to watch the youth team and check out the young talent coming through," he recalls.

"Midway through the second half a very skinny 16-year-old wearing No. 11 for Palace picked up the ball in his own half and set off on a run that would finish with the opposition goal-keeper making a fingertip save.

“It was extremely impressive watching him gliding over the ground, leaving four players in his wake. Straightaway, I asked the coach who he was. The reply? ‘That’s Wilfried Zaha, the lad I told you about. He’s two years younger than anyone else.’”

Zaha simply hasn't fitted in with Moyes' plans and has made just four appearances this season, with his only two Premier League outings coming as a substitute. He's deeply frustrated -- and he's not the only United player -- as any non-playing footballer would be and wants to go out on loan rather than fester.

Is he happy with his new manager? What do you think? Would you be in his situation? A frustrated player is nothing Moyes hasn't seen before.

Last week, Zaha was on the bench for United's Under-21s. It's clear he needs a change of scene and he's set to get that. If he can shine for Cardiff in the Premier League then his stock will rise higher than when he signed for United in January 2013.

He'll be charged with helping his new club, who are bottom of the Premier League and play at Old Trafford on Tuesday, to avoid an immediate return to the Championship.

The Eagle who became a Red Devil has a chance to fly -- wearing red -- as a Bluebird. If he does and Cardiff stay up, that tweet will be but a footnote in a much bigger story.


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