Wilfried Zaha: Have Manchester United Made the Right Move in Signing Winger?

Karl Matchett@@karlmatchettFeatured ColumnistJanuary 24, 2013

Wilfried Zaha: Have Manchester United Made the Right Move in Signing Winger?

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    Manchester United are expected to finally complete the drawn-out transfer of Crystal Palace winger Wilfried Zaha over the coming days after it was announced the two teams had come to an agreement over the move.

    Having chased the young England winger for most of the winter transfer window, manager Alex will be relieved Ferguson to have the deal wrapped up.

    Zaha will have a medical and sign a permanent deal for United, before being loaned back to Palace for the rest of this season (as per BBC).

    Evidently, Zaha has been earmarked by boss Ferguson as one to play a key part in United's future—but have the Red Devils made the right move?

Alex Ferguson's Quotes, and Zaha's Cost

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    According to the BBC, Zaha will arrive at Old Trafford with an initial cost of £10 million, rising to a total of £15 million.

    United will also not see him in action for the first seven months of his time at the club, as he remains on loan at Crystal Palace until the end of the current campaign.

    Does this fee sit well with United?

    In terms of what they've spent beforehand on young talent, probably yes, though you might not imagine that to be the case listening to the manager speaking and acting in contradictory terms.

    For starters, Alex Ferguson spoke just four weeks ago about how his team would not be signing anybody at all during the January transfer window (via ESPN).

    I will not be bringing anybody in, in January - definitely not. People keep saying we are weak in midfield but these guys are very good players.

    Those comments came on December 16, but have been swiftly cast aside to bring Zaha to the club.

    He also stated that he thought Liverpool signing Daniel Sturridge was a "gamble" after Brendan Rodgers spent that amount of money—£12 million, less than what United are paying for Zaha.

    This despite Zaha never having played in the Premier League, having fewer caps at international level and, being three years younger, less football experience altogether.

    Just how much of a gamble is Ferguson making on his own new signing, then?

Promise of Zaha and the Quality of United's Squad

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    Regardless of financial implications and the risk/reward involved, Zaha will be a Manchester United player.

    So how quickly will he fit in?

    To date, Zaha has accumulated 110 matches of league experience, all at Championship level, scoring 12 goals and recording 18 assists.

    Hardly a lengthy proven track record, but United are perhaps aiming to harness his impact value first and foremost, before developing Zaha into a more regularly contributing attacker over the medium term.

    Featuring mainly on the right wing—in fact all his league starts for Palace this season have come from that position—Zaha will come into direct competition with two or three established players for a role in the squad.

    Antonio Valencia is maybe United's most consistent right-winger, while Ashley Young and Nani provide further options.

    Alex Ferguson tends to rotate his wide midfielders more than any other area of the team, but they are all experienced players who will take plenty of shifting for Zaha to get any kind of chance at all.

End of the Line for Nani?

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    Of course, there is one possibility—to sell on one of the existing squad members in the summer to make room for Zaha.

    From the current candidates, Portuguese winger Nani appears to be the most likely to depart Old Trafford.

    Nani has featured only seven times in the Premier League this season, and has been linked with a move to Arsenal, amongst others (via Mirror Football).

    Much might depend on how highly Ferguson rates Zaha's current level of ability—a season-long loan for 2013-14 is another distinct possibility, whereby the Palace winger could gain far more experience than he would do sitting on United's bench for much of the campaign.

    The question then would be asked, why would United spend so much money on an unproven youngster if they are not already confident of his capability to contribute to the first team?

Crystal Palace's Best Prospect, and Those Who Came Before Him

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    Some lower-league sides just seem to have a fair track record of seeing their best young prospects make the grade in the Premier League. Their talented youngsters make the breakthrough, shine amongst their peers and are quickly snapped up by the big guns.

    Crewe Alexandra, Nottingham Forest and Southampton are just a handful of those who have seen their youth players progress to have significant careers elsewhere.

    So where do Crystal Palace fit in?

    Wayne Routlege left the club in 2005 after making the breakthrough at Selhurst Park as a teenager, with Tottenham signing the then-20-year-old for a fee of around £2 million.

    Pacey, direct, agile and comfortable on either wing, Routledge was seen as a real steal by Spurs—but he quickly became a football nomad, taking in seven different permanent and loan spells over the next half-dozen seasons.

    Now 28, Routledge has finally settled at Swansea City—the first team he has played 50 league games for since leaving Palace.

    John Bostock was, in 2008, labelled by Palace chairman Simon Jordan as "one of the best youngsters in the country" as he left under a cloud for a tribunal-arranged sum of just £700,000—also to Spurs—but almost five years later he has yet to play in the Premier League.

    Instead, the latest of his loan spells sees him playing at League One Swindon Town.

    More recently, Victor Moses left in 2010 for Wigan Athletic, easing his way to becoming a Premiership regular before a big-money move to Chelsea this summer.

    And only a few months ago, two more much-heralded youngsters departed Crystal Palace—Nathaniel Clyne signed for Southampton and is impressing in the top flight, but Sean Scannell, now 22, made the sideways move to Championship side Huddersfield Town.

    Only time will tell whether Zaha's move has come too early, leading down the route of Routledge and Bostock, or whether he is genuinely ready for the step up.

United's Youngsters' Prospects

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    There is one more angle to consider, on the part of both Zaha and United.

    Ever since the generation of Phil and Gary Neville, Paul Scholes, Nicky Butt and David Beckham, Alex Ferguson has been heralded as something of a mentor to the younger player, able to bring through and integrate youngsters in his first-team squad.

    Does that notion still hold true?

    United squad regulars Rafael, Chris Smalling, Tom Cleverley and Danny Welbeck are all now 22 or 23 years old, a little past the "prospects" stage. It is worth noting that all three served their apprenticeship elsewhere, be it on loan or before being signed to Old Trafford.

    In terms of players aged under 21, only Phil Jones (20) is anything even approaching a regular. Due to injuries, mainly, he has made only three league starts this season. Nick Powell (18) has made two sub appearances.

    That's it.

    Nobody else under 22 years of age has played in the Premier League for Manchester United this season at all.

    At 20 years old, perhaps Wilfried Zaha might need to consider the fact he will need to break a rigid-seeming trend at Old Trafford—or else spend far more time out on loan if he wants to keep playing first-team football.