Out of His Depth

 Back where he belongs (image via  Wikimedia Commons ).

Back where he belongs (image via Wikimedia Commons).

One theory floating out there is that Sir Alex Ferguson only signed Wilfried Zaha because his first signing for Manchester United had been Viv Anderson from Arsenal. Signing Zaha, or so the theory goes, would give Ferguson a nice little bookend to his career at United. From Anderson to Zaha: A to Z.

Okay, so maybe that's not the only reason. In fact, Zaha was once a hot property in English football. Long considered one of the brightest prospects in England, Zaha was the subject of a tug-of-war between the Three Lions and the Ivory Coast, with both national teams vying for the talented winger. In 2013, he was the subject of another battle of wills- this time between Arsene Wenger and Sir Alex Ferguson. United prevailed and signed Zaha for £10 million (potentially rising to £15 million with performance-related add-ons, but I doubt he hit those marks).

United seemed to have hit on a winner. In 2013, Zaha won the Championship's player of the year award for helping carry Crystal Palace into the Premiership with his heroic performances in the promotion playoff (he bagged a brace in the second leg of the semifinal against Brighton & Hove Albion to put Palace into the final, then he was Man of the Match in the final). That year, he even made an appearance for England after choosing to represent them at the senior level. Zaha boasted tons of natural talent and a bag of tricks that earned him comparisons to Ronaldinho. Others compared him to Gareth Bale. All in all, he seemed set to take his place in the pantheon of great United wingers and finally give the club a worthy successor to Cristiano Ronaldo.

Instead, it took about one month for David Moyes to realize that Zaha wasn't good enough to succeed at United. There were numerous reports of Zaha's immaturity and poor work ethic, but the main thing was that he just seemed in over his head. By January, "Wilf" was on his way to Cardiff on loan. Those hoping Zaha would get a second chance under Louis van Gaal were soon disappointed when Zaha barely even played during the preseason tour. When the season started, he went out on loan again, this time to Palace. Yesterday, he rejoined them on a permanent basis for a cut-rate price of £3 million. In all, Zaha only made four official appearances for United and scored zero goals.

Zaha wasn't just the final player Ferguson signed; he also represents the end of Ferguson's "youth and value" transfer policy. Since 2009, when the unofficial policy first went into effect, United have signed the following players who were aged 23 or younger: Zoran Tosic and Adem Ljajić (from Partizan FK for combined fee of approx. £17 mil, although the Ljajić deal was canceled), Richie de Laet (from Stoke for an undisclosed fee), Antonio Valencia (from Wigan for £16 mil), Gabriel Obertan (from Bordeaux for £3 mil), Mame Biram Diouf (from Molde FK for £2 mil), Chris Smalling (from Fulham for £10 mil), Javier Hernández (from Deportivo Guadalajara for £6 mil), Bebe (from Guimaraes for £7.4 mil), Phil Jones (from Blackburn for £17 mil), David de Gea (from Atletico Madrid for £18 mil), Shinji Kagawa (from Borussia Dortmund for £12 mil), Nick Powell (from Crewe Alexandra for £4 mil), Alexander Buttner (from Vitesse for £3.9 mil), Ángelo Henríquez (from Universidad de Chile for £4 mil) and Zaha. During that time period, Ferguson only signed four players that were older than 23: Michael Owen, Ashley Young, Robin van Persie and Anders Lindegaard.

More often than not, Ferguson's "value" signings were failures that got exposed almost immediately after they joined the team. Of the fledglings that came to Old Trafford under the "youth and value" policy, only Valencia, Smalling, Hernandez, De Gea and Jones succeeded (although each of them had their ups and downs). Tosic, Obertan, Buttner, Zaha and Bebe were huge flops while Powell looks set to join that list. Diouf, Henriquez and De Laet never really got a chance, while Kagawa played well but couldn't stay in the starting lineup. Ironically, the best outfield player out of the entire bunch has been Ljajić - who never arrived at Old Trafford. In the years since, he's become a huge star in Serie A with Fiorentina and now AS Roma.

On Monday, United may have finally closed the book on Ferguson's "Value Era" once and for all. The team holds a tremendous advantage thanks to Financial Fair Play, and the players United continue to be linked with are all in the galactico class. United has a clear incentive to keep spending big, and that should mean that players like Zaha and others won't be welcome.

 

Victor Li

chicago, il