Bleacher Report's Sam Tighe takes a closer look at Crystal Palace's prized asset, as Southampton prepare to face one of the Premier League's standout individuals...
Just shy of one year ago, Southampton left Selhurst Park with a three-point haul thanks to a solitary Steven Davis goal and a masterclass midfield performance from Mario Lemina.
It was Crystal Palace’s fifth straight defeat to open the season, and they’d lose two more before finally putting any points on the board.
In that seven-game losing stretch they failed to score a single goal and shipped 17 in the process. They fired Frank de Boer and hired Roy Hodgson ahead of the Saints match only to continue losing. They looked hopeless, buried, bereft of confidence.
Then Wilfried Zaha returned from injury.
In his first game back from a six-game knee injury, he inspired the Eagles to a remarkable 2-1 victory over Chelsea.
He scored eight more over the course of the season, becoming the true lifeblood of the team, inspiring hope in the stands and on the pitch. With Zaha on the pitch, anything felt possible; without, fortunes seemed bleak.
The statistics back that sentiment up to an astonishing degree. Palace lost every single one of the ten matches they played without him in 2017/18, collecting all of their 44 points with him present. He redefines 'key man'.
This weekend Southampton return to Selhurst Park, but this time won’t have the luxury of playing Palace without Zaha.
He’s fit and already in full flow, two goals to his name, and will likely be priority one, two and three for Mark Hughes as a plan for the opposition is drawn up.
Once a winger, Zaha has morphed into more of a striker and now plays off Christian Benteke in a 4-4-2.
He has license to drift into the channels to find space, has no responsibility to occupy specific areas and will often drop short to start attacks. In essence, he has almost total freedom.
The rest of the team sort of wraps around him, changing shape depending on what he’s doing.
sam tighepalace lost every single one of the ten matches they played without him in 2017/18, collecting all of their 44 points with him present. he redefines 'key maN'.
There are times when Palace look unbalanced or lopsided due to Zaha’s drifting, but his ability to skip past a tackle and surge into space sometimes makes that a positive, not a negative – he’s making space for himself at times.
Although he drifts all over, the majority of his final-third work takes place on the left. That makes him Cédric’s responsibility, and Hughes may even consider reverting to a back five to give his full-back assistance on the inside.
Asking Jack Stephens, Jan Bednarek or Maya Yoshida to cover the space just behind Cédric as he squares up Zaha would not only help block him off, but help track the aggressive runs both Patrick van Aanholt (from left-back) and Jeffrey Schlupp (from left wing) make into the box.
Zaha is not Palace’s only threat; Andros Townsend can clip good balls into the box, James McArthur’s well-timed attacking runs are a threat and Benteke’s a willing battler for long, aerial balls.
But stymieing Zaha goes at least halfway to stymieing Palace. It should be a focus of Saints’ at Selhurst Park this weekend.