Crystal Palace has dealt with an injury crisis up top this season, but when healthy, Wilfried Zaha has proven he is ready for a central forward role as the foundation of the club's future.

By 90Min
May 08, 2018

Amid a horrific injury crisis in every sense of the phrase, Crystal Palace were left with no fit strikers for a large chunk of the 2017/18 season. You may - justifiably - be wondering how a Premier League club had no eligible forwards for large chunks of a top flight season. But after significant injuries to Christian Benteke and Bakary Sako and a lack of recruitment in the summer from Frank de Boer, the squad was woefully ill-equipped. 

As a result of this, Roy Hodgson, upon taking over from de Boer, had to become creative in his team selections. A start consisting of seven games, seven losses and zero goals scored was put to an end against reigning champions Chelsea of all clubs, and in strange fashion in regard to the shape deployed by the Eagles. 

Hodgson opted to start Wilfried Zaha and Andros Townsend as center forwards, a position that was mostly alien at this level to two players who have spent their respective careers on the wing. The pair started at the top of what looked to be a 4-2-2-2 formation with James McArthur and Jeffrey Schlupp just behind them, and boy did it come off. 

Surprisingly, the two natural wingers turned strikers ploy worked a treat. The pair's raw pace up top caused the Chelsea back line all sorts of problems, purely because it threw their game plan off so much. However, one man stood out from the two: the Ivorian forward and Palace academy graduate Zaha. 

The 25-year-old scored what turned out to be the winning goal in that game, and continued to line up alongside Townsend up top over the course of the season to great effect. While Townsend runs his socks off and ends up all over the pitch at times, Zaha has taken to the central role like a duck to water. 

His transition is reminiscent of when Gareth Bale was given a free role at Spurs and allowed to move into the center whenever he pleased. Significantly, the former Manchester United man has already bettered his tally of seven goals from last season, despite missing ten games through injury. 

Even when Benteke returned to fitness and Alexander Sorloth was signed in January to bolster the squad, Zaha's performances were so good that he continued in the center forward role.  

Of course, he made his name on the wing and is still a phenomenal option to have out on the flank; perhaps one of the best in the league. But while up top, Zaha's defensive duties are lessened, meaning he can focus his immense attacking abilities on penetrating the opposition's defense rather than being preoccupied with their wingers instead. 

At just 25 years of age, the Eagles' No. 11 is entering his peak years, both ability wise as well as mentally. He is also becoming more mature in his position play, and is showing his ruthless side - his shots per game ratio has increased from 1.4 to 2.2 in the space of a season, while his key passes ratio has gone from 1.1 to 1.8. 

Additionally, his assists have dropped from nine last year to just three this time around, which could suggest that Zaha has adopted a selfish streak; a trait that most strikers require. 

Whether or not Hodgson wants to continue deploying Zaha up front is another question. One thing is for certain, however, the Ivory Coast international is definitely ready to continue playing centrally. 

At times in the past, Zaha has been tested upfront on his own, but has been out muscled, outfought and marked out of the game with ease. What has been a key factor in that not being the case this time round is his physicality. If you're a follower of his social media accounts, it'll be no surprise to you that he has massively bulked up in recent years, such is the consistency of his gym related posts. 

At times this season, Zaha's strength on the ball has been immense. Add that to his already world class ability with the ball at his feet - his dribbling statistics are up there with Lionel Messi, Neymar and Eden Hazard's - and you have a near perfect center forward. 

The only worry for Zaha's future is that a summer of recruitment could see a top striker join the club and push him back out onto the wing. Having said that, Palace needn't bother looking for new faces in that department; they already have a formidable central option that is only going to get better. 

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