Signed by Sir Alex Ferguson but never destined to play under him thanks to the Scot’s retirement, Zaha did not appear to be valued by David Moyes. Louis van Gaal’s arrival may have seemed like good news, given the manager’s reputation for bringing through young players, but Zaha was quickly deemed surplus to requirements and returned to Crystal Palace.
At the moment, it seems like a decision that has worked out well for all concerned. Zaha has benefited from increased playing time, Palace brought back a crowd favourite and United cleared the squad of a player who would have had a peripheral role—at most—this season.
Should Zaha transform into one of the game’s greats, then United will be left wondering what might have been.
Even then, though, there is not necessarily cause for regret. After all, assuming he did make it to the very top, who is to say that his humbling experience at United would not have contributed to that.
His time at United did few favours for his reputation. Ian Ladyman, writing for the MailOnine in February, quoted an anonymous Premier League manager who was linked with a loan move for Zaha in January 2014:
"Yeah, I was looking at it. But I know one of the backroom staff at United and they told me not to go near him. They say he is good enough but he isn’t doing things right."
Ladyman also wrote that Zaha "had turned up 45 minutes late for a reserve game" and that "it was not the first time that Zaha had erred in this way."
Zaha refuted claims about his attitude in an interview with Jason Burt in The Telegraph in April, saying:
There were so many rumours about me that were not true. They hurt me because all I was doing was keeping my head down to do my best every time and then after training I’d go home and there would be something in the paper or whatever about me not having a good attitude and that’s why I wasn’t playing, rumours about my private life and that’s why I wasn’t playing, me turning up late for this, turning up late for that.
And I was thinking 'why are people doing this?' I’d worked so hard to get here and now people were trying to bring me down. On top of not playing I had to deal with all that weird nonsense as well.
Zaha is definitely happier now, saying of his regular involvement in the first team "it’s a great feeling."
This season, United have not missed Zaha’s presence. The winger has shown glimpses of flair and quality at Palace, but those moments have been infrequent.
With three goals and two assists, his numbers are decent rather than stellar. A closer look at the statistics show his chance creation is low, with just 0.4 key passes and 0.6 successful crosses on average per game.
Although he is still young, his performances have done nothing yet to cause United hearts to yearn for his return.
Although United have sometimes lacked a spark in the final third, it is hard to see where Zaha would have succeeded where, say, Angel Di Maria has failed. Even when Van Gaal has played with wingers, Zaha would have faced competition from a resurgent Ashley Young, established superstars such as Di Maria and Juan Mata and another talented youngster in Adnan Januzaj.
The arrival of Memphis Depay would have pushed Zaha even further down the pecking order.
So far, it looks like a move that has worked out for everyone involved.
It does not look as though this is a transfer United will live to regret.
Advanced statistics per WhoScored.com.