Every Palace fan, every Premier League fan for that matter, knows that one Wilfried Zaha is the South London outfit’s most important player. Whether you view him in positive terms, as the talisman of a team enjoying an unprecedented run in England’s top flight, or in the negative, as a serial diver on a “one man team”, anyone with a remotely informed opinion will not question his importance to the Eagles.
Where opinion splits, however, is in how to best utilize the talent possessed by a player that most fans hate to see in opposition colours while simultaneously dreaming of him in their own. With that in mind, let’s take a few moments to explore the options, with the understanding that Palace’s number 11 will continue to dazzle week in and week out regardless of where he lines up on the pitch.
Option 1: Striker
This option really has two distinct possibilities, the first being as a more traditional pair as we've seen when Zaha is deployed up top with Andros Townsend. This, "wingers as strikers" option has proven effective on occasion, most notably in last season's victory over Chelsea at Selhurst Park. The three central defenders for the Blues couldn't lay a finger on Zaha, who ended up providing the winner. This option appears to be most effective against stronger competition who are more willing to push bodies forward in attack and open up space for the non-traditional strike-force to exploit, running at central defenders who aren't used to that sort of defending. Unfortunately, when teams decide to sit back, both front men go missing for long stretches, inevitably floating out wide toward their respective comfort zones. Even when they do get on the ball in these positions, there is a distinct lack of targets to aim at in the box.
The second option would see Zaha deployed in a forward position with a traditional target forward. This option would seemingly make sense if not for Palace's baffling injury crisis that has seen the likes of Connor Wickham, Christian Benteke, and Alexander Sorloth all miss significant time due to injury. Even with Benteke's goal-scoring form all but disappearing, when the big Belgian provided even serviceable hold-up play, Zaha feasted on the space created by even a little bit of possession in the final third. Furthermore, when the Ivorian international did float out wide in search of space and time on the ball, defenders had to at least account for a big body in the box. The biggest problem with this option is the lack of options in the squad to pull it off. The three aforementioned forwards are either on the shelf or un-trusted by Roy, and the Palace midfield, without the roving creativity of Yohan Cabaye, consistent deployment of Max Meyer, or the ability in possession by Ruben Loftus-Cheek, seem incapable of providing the type of service necessary to create enough opportunity.
Option 2: Wide RIght
Palace fans bemoaned Andros Townsend when he first arrived at Palace for seemingly displacing their favourite son from his preferred position. Long before the "Star Man" was playing on the right, Zaha was creating magic on that side of the pitch while Yannick Bolasie ran down the other wing. The thought was that Zaha was more comfortable on that side of the pitch and that his slowly emerging end product that pundits love to talk about would suffer. Even now, as the top six are almost continually linked with the home grown product, most publications refer to him as a right winger as they link him with the likes of Arsenal and Manchester United (ironically). Would his end product and assist numbers jump with a return to the right side? Honestly, as long as Townsend is cutting in from that side onto his left foot, we'll most likely never find out, making the conversation a bit moot.
Option 3: Wide Left
Regardless of where he is initially deployed, Zaha finds himself on the left flank in big moments. Fans will no doubt remember his stoppage time equaliser against West Ham and his decimation of two Watford defenders before teeing up James McArthur for another stoppage time winner last season. Unfortunately, in current circumstances, this option is also a difficult one to envision, given our distinct lack of options to lead the line. At least once this season, Roy has deployed a 4-3-3 with Zaha out left, but with his preference for the narrow 4-4-2, and, inexplicably, Jeffrey Schlupp, we haven't seen enough of this to make an informed judgement (other than the fact that Jordan Ayew is not the answer).
The Verdict: Tied Hands
The question is this: Do you play your best 11 players, and fit them around one another however you can, or do you play your best players in the positions they're most effective, and fill out the rest of the team sheet based on that? In a perfect world, that question could be debated on its merits alone, but Crystal Palace Football Club does not exist in such a world (as though any of us needed reminding of that). That world might include an in form Benteke scoring goals and creating opportunities for Zaha with his strength and aerial prowess. It might include Ruben Loftus-Cheek or Max Meyer starting 30+ matches and giving the red and blue a creative attacking presence in midfield. It might include the positional genius of Yohan Cabaye allowing captain Luka Milivojevic to roam around and batter opposing number tens. As long as that world, or one like it, continues to elude South London's number one, Palace will be continually forced to deploy Zaha wherever they have the biggest need, relying on his skill, and possibly more importantly, will, to keep them in the Premier League.