Hodgson’s backing and Batshuayi’s fitness making a difference
BY SAM SMITH
Finally, the confident and effusive Wilfried Zaha is back enjoying his football.
Following a week in which his performance against Brighton & Hove Albion was criticised and Roy Hodgson demanded more, Zaha responded with his best display of the season at Fulham.
The Crystal Palace forward played the pass from which Jairo Riedewald opened the scoring. He then met Michy Batshuayi’s cross to net the game’s second and, with only Tom Cairney’s added-time consolation threatening an unlikely comeback, its winning goal.
Zaha had brilliant moments in the South Londoners’ win at Manchester United last month, scoring twice in a 3-1 victory. But at Craven Cottage he produced his most consistent performance over a 90-minute period for a long time.
Had Patrick van Aanholt timed his run slightly better before collecting Eberechi Eze’s pass and sliding the ball across goal for the Ivory Coast international to slam home, there could have been a second brace of the campaign. The celebration was cut short by the assistant referee’s flag.
There was a reignited sense of confidence around Zaha that has recently been absent.
Right-back Ola Aina was Zaha’s main victim but none of Fulham’s four defenders – nor their midfield – truly came close to stopping him. Shackling his talent is something that Fulham boss Scott Parker admitted even the best defenders do not achieve.
Only the goalpost, with which he collided after converting Batshuayi’s cross, threatened to eliminate him from a game he controlled. Fears he might have suffered a serious injury evaporated when he tweeted a picture of him clutching his knee alongside a screengrab of American cartoon Family Guy character Peter Griffin stricken in a similar position.
That he was often in so much space at Craven Cottage was either the result of a failed Fulham plan to nullify his threat or a response to his manager’s call for him to work harder to receive the ball.
It could also have been a mixture of both, but ultimately the result was a vastly improved attacking performance by Palace.
His goal was his fifth of the season and at no point in his career has he had this many after six games. He only netted four across the whole of the last campaign.
Well on course to net double figures, he has only managed that once in his career. To achieve that would be an emphatic reply to his manager’s demand for more from his most talented player.
But that relationship needs to be reciprocal. Zaha needs more from his manager to truly squeeze the very best from him.
Slightly withdrawn from the centre-forward position which has shackled his repertoire in recent games, he was able to find gaps between the Fulham midfield and defence, collect the ball and drive at whichever defender dared try to stop him.
Perhaps Batshuayi’s improved match fitness helped. The Belgian was able to win headers, flicks and could hold up possession to bring Zaha into the game.
While Batshuayi was catching up, after barely featuring for Chelsea last season, Zaha was effectively doing the work of two strikers.
When Hodgson uses Zaha as the furthest forward player, he is often isolated, and the best of his skill set is averted – easily nullified by bigger, more experienced central defenders. Everton’s Yerry Mina and Chelsea’s veteran defender Thiago Silva have found him too easy to stop.
Zaha is not at his best when he is forced to chase loose passes into the channel or over the top of a defence – or especially when it is his job to hold up possession and bring others into play.
Instead, the academy graduate is better utilised when slightly deeper, either wide or in the middle alongside another forward, and able to run at defenders.
Hodgson suggested Zaha had been unhappy with what the forward perceived as criticism from the Eagles boss.
“Every press conference begins with Wilfried Zaha in one way or another,” Hodgson moaned after the game. “If I’m not careful I have to explain to him that what he regards as negative comments were not delivered negatively.”
But the 73-year-old insisted he has been impressed by Zaha. “I’m more than happy to praise him but that’s quite a common occurrence because he does so many good things and he’s started this season so well.”
The praise will go a long way to maintaining the best form from Hodgson’s most influential talent, a player who is well on course for his best season in a Palace shirt.
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