“Zaha has now been fouled more than 500 times in the Premier League. Here’s how and why…
By Matt Woosnam
Dec 7, 2019
Zaha has some way to go before he will catch the Premier League’s most-fouled player of all time, Kevin Davies, who was fouled 727 times in 316 appearances for Southampton, Blackburn Rovers and Bolton Wanderers.
It is rather appropriate that Zaha’s milestone of 500 Premier League fouls was reached against Watford, for no club have fouled him more often (33 times). Femenia took a real disliking to Zaha’s trickery on Saturday, conceding the 500th, 501st and 502nd fouls on the winger. He was booked at Vicarage Road, as was Etienne Capoue, who fouled Zaha twice during the 0-0 draw.
Next up on the club hit list are two more of Palace’s London rivals, Arsenal (31 fouls) and Tottenham (28 fouls).
There is history with Watford, of course. It was Zaha’s pace and trickery which tied Marco Cassetti in knots during the 2013 Championship play-off final. In extra-time, Cassetti failed to cope with Zaha’s run into the penalty area and out came his leg, only to be too late to get the ball. Down went the winger under the clumsy challenge and up stepped Kevin Phillips to dispatch the penalty which sent Palace into the Premier League.
Since then, Watford fans have targeted Zaha from the stands. It is true that it is easy to wind him up, such is his passion, his intensity and his tendency not to hide his emotions on the pitch. It is part of his charm for Palace fans and perhaps partly why opposition supporters are often so riled.
Early into Palace’s 2-1 defeat at Vicarage Road in August 2018, Etienne Capoue raked his studs down Zaha’s Achilles, only receiving a yellow card from referee Anthony Taylor. Zaha was furious again, much to the delight of the home support who spent most of the 90 minutes haranguing him until his consolation goal with 12 minutes remaining.
After that game, Watford captain Troy Deeney spoke to BBC Five Live to explicitly reveal what was otherwise obvious to many observers but had never been spoken about before — that teams commit rotational fouls to stop Zaha.
“If you were playing against him, you stop him. You take it in turns of kicking him,” he said. “I know no one wants to hear that, but you go; ‘You hit this time, you hit him the next time.’ You don’t have the same player tackle him because you know you’re going to get booked.
“It’s difficult, but also as a captain I’d be the first… if we were playing him this week and he’d just said those comments (about being targeted) I’d have been like, ‘Ref, don’t you be the first one to give him a penalty. Don’t you start going easy on him.’
“You can then flip it and start being more psychological with the referees.
“They might not listen to people, for example, we all know that Wilf is emotional on the pitch, so when he does get tackled and feels he’s been fouled, the first thing he does, he goes screaming and shouting at the referee. Now it’s human nature, if you’re screaming and shouting at someone, you’re not going to do them a favour are you?”
But Watford are far from the only club to have problems constraining his mercurial talent.
Every touch, every foul, anything he does is jeered. He is the villain every time. Yet often getting Zaha riled up works against the opposition. At Huddersfield last season, after clattering into Florent Hadergjonaj he was targeted by the home support only to go on a surging run down the left wing and score the winning goal. In the final game of the season against Bournemouth, he responded to jeers by ghosting past three players to set up Andros Townsend.
Again last season, a familiar chant followed him around. “Too shit for England” sang West Ham supporters at Selhurst Park in February, only for Zaha to retort in the best possible way with a 72nd-minute equaliser, having earlier cupped his hands to his ears at the away support. The same chant in the same fixture a season earlier produced a similar result when he went on to score a superb late goal to make it 2-2 and earn Palace a point.
It is something that former Palace and West Brom first-team coach Ben Garner thinks is counter-productive for the opposition. “Players need to work a bit harder on their footwork and be clear in their mind,” he told The Athletic. “Defend with good clarity and not be tempted to dive in. I always think he prefers it when people come after him.”
Just 16 of the 503 fouls have led to penalties — although none more important than the one in the play-off final — while 98 of them have seen the opposing player shown a yellow card, and just one a straight red.
That came in Palace’s 5-0 win over Leicester in 2018, when Marc Albrighton was dismissed for hauling Zaha down after failing to get enough on a pass back to his goalkeeper Kasper Schmeichel.
The other players to have been sent off for fouls on Zaha — after a second yellow — are West Ham’s Aaron Cresswell, Liverpool’s James Milner, Aston Villa’s Trezeguet and Wolves’ Roman Saiss. The latter two came this season, with Trezeguet cynically taking him down after being incapable of handling him, and Saiss for first being late with a tackle and then pulling the winger down.
A player so adored in south London, even despite his public desire to leave the club to test himself at the highest possible level, one song has stuck since its first airing. During a League Cup match with Southampton in 2011, he somehow escaped from the clutches of two defenders with back-to-back nutmegs in a tight corner of the Holmesdale Road end and Main Stand, having also tormented the substitute Guly do Prado, to earn the spontaneous chant “he’s just too good for you!” For most defenders, that is truly the case. Tottenham’s Danny Rose and Burnley’s Erik Pieters share the award for having fouled him the most — with eight each — while Neil Taylor has six, and there are another six players who have committed five fouls each on Zaha.
Former Palace boss Ian Holloway was effusive in his praise for the Ivory Coast forward, telling The Athletic: “The final product will come. At first, I didn’t believe it. I thought that was a stupid throwaway song and at times the boy is (too good). I’ve seen it and I still miss that because I’ve never seen anybody do things like he can with a football.
“I identified a weakness in the play-off final and put Wilf on that weakness, thinking he (Cassetti) will foul him and get sent off. The biggest laugh is they (Watford fans) still think it’s a dive now. It ain’t a dive mate, nowhere near a dive. Have a look, our bloke twisted your bloke inside out. If I was their manager I’d have brought him off because it was so obvious a weakness.”
The Watford manager at the time, Gianfranco Zola, insists there was never a plan specifically for Zaha, other than to prevent him getting the ball as much as possible.
“If I’m a coach and my team defends against him, then the defender needs to close him down before he receives the ball,” he told The Athletic.
“We had our plan and of course it was obviously to make sure that the best players do not have the opportunity to do something. It wasn’t specific on Zaha, it was more to not allow the rest of the team to get the ball to him easily, and be more protective with the ball. It didn’t work and it was one of the worst games of the season for us.
“For the same reason, a player like him, you need to get close to him when he has the ball, and Marco didn’t. If he is already facing you, then you have to make sure you are never square on, you have to be on the side so that at least you don’t foul him and you can try to stop his run.
“That year he was the man. He was the player who, when he had the ball at his feet, it was very difficult to get the ball off him. In a similar way to Fernando Forestieri for us. I don’t remember another player (that season) with a similar ability with the ball.
“It’s difficult because he is one of those players who, if you allow him to receive the ball and turn the defender, he is unmarkable. You have to make sure he doesn’t get the ball easily or have the time to turn and face you. If you are on top of him before he turns then you might be able to stop him doing something different with the power he has.
“You always need to have a player like him, especially if teams play deep then you need a player of his ability.”
Milner is the only player to have seen red more than once for fouling the 27-year-old, the first coming in Liverpool’s 2-1 win at Selhurst Park in the 2015-16 season when he was late with a tackle from behind. The second was in the final minute of a 4-3 Liverpool win at Anfield last season when he was again late with a tackle from behind.
In his book, Ask A Footballer, Milner named Zaha as the most difficult player he has faced. “I’ve played against all the great players of my generation — Lionel Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo, Xavi, Andres Iniesta and so on,” he wrote. “The best player, in my opinion, is Messi. But I would honestly say the one who has troubled me most on a one-to-one basis is Wilfried Zaha. I’ve been sent off twice for Liverpool and they’ve been for fouls against him. He’s such a difficult opponent, not just because he’s got great ability but because he’s so unpredictable. With most players, if you’re up against them, one to one, you’ve got a good idea of what they’re going to do. Zaha is a nightmare to play against.”
The ratio of players getting booked for a foul on Zaha is a touch under one yellow card per five indiscretions. For context, Alexis Sanchez and Raheem Sterling have prompted 56 bookings — compared with Zaha’s 102 in the same period — with the City forward’s coming in more appearances and total minutes than the Palace winger.
The most cynical of all those bookings for fouling Zaha perhaps came earlier this season when Matteo Guendouzi essentially rugby-tackled Zaha to the ground to stop him from running in on goal (below). The Arsenal midfielder said of the incident: “I had to foul Zaha at the end, otherwise he is through on goal on his own. I’m the last defender but I’m far from our goal as well. I had to do it.”
Guendouzi hauled down Zaha when he was threatening a counter-attack, presumably knowing the chaos that would ensue at the other end of the pitch, should he be allowed to advance, with Zaha drawing almost 200 fouls in the final third of the pitch, 16 of which have resulted in a penalty.
Former Palace and Fulham defender Brede Hangeland believes the only way to stop Zaha winning penalties is by preventing him from getting the ball in the area.
“It’s almost a question of trying to avoid that situation,” he told The Athletic. “If you find yourself in that situation, you’ve more or less lost already. A big part of a team’s game plan will be how do they avoid that situation. How do they keep him outside of the box or keep him with his back to goal if he gets in?
“It’s about limiting the service and the kind of passes he will receive. You have to pick the least dangerous option. You always want him to have the ball as far away from the goal as possible.”
Accusations of diving will forever follow players like Zaha around and VAR has already overturned one such booking, in that same Arsenal game. Calum Chambers clearly caught his leg and tripped him, but referee Atkinson — who was in charge of that play-off final in 2013 and the match on Saturday which brought up the 500-foul milestone — booked him for simulation. Wrongly, as it turned out, and Palace went on to score the penalty.
As Palace boss Roy Hodgson has alluded to several times this season, statistics around goals and assists can be misleading, and the value of those fouls Zaha has drawn is in some cases impossible to measure. You can quantify a “key pass” or such like, but it doesn’t truly capture the essence of a player’s overall performance, such as the space he creates for another player, or when he is triple-marked to pull defenders away from elsewhere, or indeed winning a penalty, which, if scored, does not contribute to the number of assists a player has made.
There is a sense in some circles that Zaha’s — mostly unfair — reputation for diving, simulation or otherwise seemingly attempting to con referees, precedes him. It seems apparent his sometimes tempestuous, emotional reactions to perceived fouls, and comments from opposition players, managers and supporters do him no favours when referees weigh up whether to award a tight call in his favour. That is not to say it is a conscious bias, but more that they are influenced by those most vociferous in the stadium.
Zaha has spoken out about his perceived unfair treatment at the hands of referees. He is so frequently targeted by opposition players who understandably see him as Palace’s main threat. Eliminate him and you take away a huge part of Palace’s attacking play. Speaking after that Watford game last season, he said: “I know that for a fact (opponents are out there to hurt me) but I just don’t know what to do anymore. I end up arguing with referees because today the guy studded me in my shin — do they need to break my leg before anyone gets a red card?”
It is too soon to judge the effect of VAR on preventing potentially dangerous fouls which may otherwise be missed or ignored by referees, and ultimately on protecting players like Zaha, but it seems logical to assume it is only likely to have a beneficial impact.
Even when he is out of form, as for the early part of this season, he will always tease opposition players into fouls, and in turn help create chances and set up goals. How much longer he will do so in a Palace shirt is unclear, but until such a time as he does leave, you can be sure that there will be plenty more renditions of “he’s just too good for you”, plenty more players being bamboozled by his skill and maybe one day he will become the most fouled player in Premier League history.”
The lunatic, the lover, and the poet
are of imagination all compact.
One sees more devils than vast hell can hold—
that is the madman. The lover, all as frantic,
sees Helen’s beauty in a brow of Egypt.
The poet’s eye, in fine frenzy rolling,
doth glance from heaven to Earth, from Earth to heaven.
And as imagination bodies forth
the forms of things unknown, the poet’s pen
turns them to shapes and gives to airy nothing
a local habitation and a name.
Such tricks hath strong imagination,
that if it would but apprehend some joy,
it comprehends some bringer of that joy.
William Shakespeare, A Midsummer Night’s Dream
Act Five Scene One.
Quote – Marcel Proust
“The tyranny of rhyme forces the poet to the discovery of his finest lines.”
Quote – Arthur Symonds
“The death of Ernest Dowson will mean very little to the world at large, but it will mean a great deal to the few people who care passionately for poetry. A little book of verses, the manuscript of another, a one-act play in verse, a few short stories, two novels written in collaboration, some translations from the French, done for money; that is all that was left by a man who was undoubtedly a man of genius, not a great poet, but a poet, one of the very few writers of our generation to whom that name can be applied in its most intimate sense.
People will complain, probably, in his verses, of what will seem to them the factitious melancholy, the factitious idealism, and (peeping through at a few rare moments) the factitious suggestions of riot. They will see only a literary affectation, where in truth there is as genuine a note of personal sincerity as in the more explicit and arranged confessions of less admirable poets.
Yes, in these few evasive, immaterial snatches of song, I find, implied for the most part, hidden away like a secret, all the fever and turmoil and the unattained dreams of a life which had itself so much of the swift, disastrous, and suicidal impetus of genius.”
Quote – John Maynard Keynes
[Capitalism amounts to] “the astonishing belief that the nastiest of motives of the nastiest of men will somehow or other work for the best results in the best of all possible worlds.”
Quote – Clive James
“At a time when almost everyone writes poetry but scarcely anyone can write a poem, it is hard not to wish for a return to some less accommodating era, when the status of a ‘poet’ was not so easily aspired to, and the only hankering was to get something said in a memorable form. Alas we would have to go a long way back.”
Quote – F. R. Leavis
[The poet] “is unusually sensitive, unusually aware, more sincere and more himself than the ordinary man can be….He is a poet because his interest in his experience is not separable from his interest in words.”