Arsenal face a fight to convince Crystal Palace to sell Wilfried Zaha, but the statistics show why he is exactly the player they need...
If Wilfried Zaha's dream really is to play for Arsenal, it might explain why he reserved two of his best performances for them last season.
In the 2-2 draw at Selhurst Park in October, the Ivorian was irrepressible, tormenting Arsenal's makeshift back four and winning the penalty for Crystal Palace's late equaliser. At the Emirates Stadium six months later, he was even better, inflicting more trauma on Arsenal's stricken defenders and hitting his side's second goal in a swashbuckling 3-2 win.
That win proved terminal to Arsenal's top-four hopes. They went on to miss out by a single point. And it also helps to explain why they are prepared to spend the entirety of their transfer budget on Zaha. That match-winning performance - coupled with what he did to them at Selhurst Park - gave Arsenal a first-hand demonstration of just how dangerous he can be.
Not that there wasn't enough evidence already.
Since returning to Palace following his ill-fated stint at Manchester United, Zaha has matured into one of the deadliest forwards in the Premier League. Last season, there were devastating displays against Liverpool and Manchester City as well as against Arsenal. Jurgen Klopp even described him as "world-class" following a seven-goal thriller at Anfield in January.
It's a view shared by many at Palace, and it's why they are entitled to demand far more than the £40m on offer from Arsenal. Zaha's performances have followed an upward curve in recent years, with last season his best yet. As well as scoring 10 goals, he provided five assists and won six penalties - the most by anyone in the Premier League.
Arsenal have work to do, then, to tempt Palace to sell. But it should come as little surprise that they have identified him as a priority target.
In Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Alexandre Lacazette, they possess two elite strikers who scored 50 goals between them last season. But no one else in the squad managed more than six. Arsenal scored at roughly the same rate as in the previous campaign, but their shot volume actually fell from 15.6 per game in 2017/18 to just 12.3 per game in 2018/19.
It is an alarming drop-off which is often overlooked given their more obvious inadequacies in defence. But last season's shot total placed them 10th among Premier League sides. The need for attacking reinforcements is as pressing as their issues at the other end.
Zaha would certainly help to improve the situation. But what makes him particularly appealing to Arsenal is his explosive unpredictability. The 26-year-old's ability to panic defences, to conjure chances out of nothing, is something Arsenal's attack badly lacks.
Indeed, Arsenal's numbers for dribbles have declined even more strikingly than their shots. As recently as the 2015/16 campaign, the Gunners made more dribbles than any other Premier League side. Last year, though, their average of just eight per game put them 12th in the division.
The result is that Arsenal often appear laboured in possession. Unai Emery's side were devastatingly effective at times on the counter-attack last season. They showed that in their wins over Tottenham, Chelsea and Manchester United. But without a spark, without a player capable of beating his man to force a breakthrough, they struggled against lesser sides who sat deep.
It has a lot to do with Alexis Sanchez's departure 18 months ago. The Chilean could be frustrating to watch and there can be few regrets about his exit given how far his star has fallen at United. But at his best he was indisputably a game-changer. Even when not scoring himself, his whirlwind style pulled defences apart, opening up spaces for his team-mates.
Zaha specialises in creating the same kind of chaos.
Since the start of 2014/15, his first full season back at Palace, he ranks first among Premier League players for dribbles attempted and second for both dribbles completed and successful duels. Only Raheem Sterling, Eden Hazard, Sergio Aguero and Mohamed Salah have had more touches in the opposition box.
His unpredictability prompted Trent Alexander-Arnold to describe him as a tougher one-on-one opponent than Cristiano Ronaldo or Neymar last season - "you can't get the ball off him," he said - and the Liverpool right-back is certainly not the only defender to have struggled up against him.
Often, the only option with Zaha is to bring him down. Arsenal are aware of that - they fouled him on 12 occasions in their two meetings with Palace last season. But the approach is best typified by Watford. "You take it in turns kicking him," said Troy Deeney. "I know no one wants to hear that, but you go: 'You hit this time, then you hit him the next time.'"
Zaha is still learning to manage his temper in the face of that heavy-handed treatment. His frustration boiled over when he was sent off during a meeting with Southampton in January. But he is far more mature than the teenager who struggled at Manchester United, and if he does retain an edge then it is not necessarily bad thing.
Indeed, that competitive edge, the willingness to put his body on the line and do whatever it takes to gain an advantage, is another quality Arsenal lack. Emery has increased fitness levels and intensity since taking over - they covered more ground than any other side last season - but they can still be bullied and they still lack players who strike fear into their opponents.
Who better to change that than Wilfried Zaha? It is just another reason why Arsenal want to sign him. The problem for them, of course, is that it is also why Crystal Palace are so reluctant to let him go.
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