Crystal Palace have some huge decisions to make in the coming months. 16 to be exact, as that is how many members of Roy Hodgson’s first team squad are out of contract on July 1st. Yet their priority, in what promises to be a huge summer for The Eagles, should be seeking a lucrative transfer for their best player, Wilfried Zaha.
In their eighth consecutive season in the English top flight, with a ninth looking assured, Palace have attempted to become masters of the bargain basement, opting to pay higher wages to attract players with expiring or expired contracts, rather than shelling out lucrative transfer fees. Indeed, they have broken the £15m mark on just three occasions (Christian Benteke, Mamadou Sakho, Eberechi Eze), yet possess the eighth highest wage bill in the Premier League.
At just over £80m, Palace have a higher annual wage bill than Leicester, West Ham, Aston Villa, Southampton, Wolves and Leeds. They spend nearly four times as much on wages as the final entry on that list, with Marcelo Bielsa’s side paying out just £22m per year. Given their respective playing styles and their current league positions, that is quite a staggering difference.
However, that wage bill will be reduced markedly in July when those 16 contracts run out. The full list of expirees is as follows; Jeffrey Schlupp (28 years old, £56k per week), Mamadou Sakho (30, £100k), Andros Townsend (29, £55k), Christian Benteke (30, £120k), Patrick van Aanholt (30, £52k), Tyrick Mitchell (21, £1.5k), James McCarthy (30, £50k), Nathaniel Clyne (29, £55k), James McArthur (33, £57k), Joel Ward (31, £37k), Scott Dann (33, £42k), Martin Kelly (30, £25k), Gary Cahill (35, £75k), Wayne Hennessey (34, £40k), Connor Wickham (27, £55k) and Stephen Henderson (32, £12k). Add onto that the expiring loan of Michy Batshuayi and the contract of the manager, Roy Hodgson, and Palace are in a pickle.
It adds up to £832,000 per week in basic wages, not including bonuses, for a group of 16 players of whom 11 are already 30 or older, with rising star Tyrick Mitchell the only player under 27 and, arguably, with any substantial long term resale value. However, these are not fringe players. Nine of them have played in at least ten of Palace’s 22 games so far this season and four (Van Aanholt, Cahill, Dann & Clyne) comprised their entire defence during the midweek victory over Newcastle.
Realistically, Palace are not going to replace 16 players in a single transfer window which means a number of renewals are inevitable. Whilst the likes of Sakho, McCarthy, Hennessey, Wickham and Henderson will surely be moved on, any of the rest could conceivably stay, meaning that the club will be forced to look at extending contracts of a plethora of aging, declining players on huge contracts or face having to recuit half a new squad. So, where does star player Wilfried Zaha and his long-mooted transfer fit into this muddle?
Palace are a club in limbo. Usually safe from relegation due to the experience and knowhow of veteran manager Roy Hodgson, yet they also rarely trouble the top half much beyond the autumn. Indeed, they have finished no higher than tenth or lower than 15th during their run in the top flight.
They have regularly been overtaken by more recently promoted sides, with even clubs of a similar of smaller size, Burnley and Sheffield United, achieving higher finishes than Palace have managed. To find a way out of this purgatory, the club should try to emulate the transfer strategy employed by a side whose success in recent seasons should surely serve as inspiration to all non-elite clubs, Leicester City.
Forget the famous title win in 2015/16, arguably the greatest underdog story in the history of sport and an obviously unrealistic goal. It is Leicester’s transfer business since those heady days that has shown how ‘smaller’ clubs can make the transfer market work in their favour and use it to rise up the Premier League.
Whilst Crystal Palace have fought tooth and nail to hang onto Wilfried Zaha, despite their talismanic forward handing in a transfer request in 2019 and making it clear since that he’d like a move, Leicester are not afraid to sell their best players. In fact, the club have operated on a model of selling their stars for huge premiums, with cheaper and equally capable alternatives either identified or already purchased. It is a model that has been executed to near perfection.
After winning the league, Leicester sold N’Golo Kante, regarded as the finest defensive midfielder in the world at the time, for £32m causing fans to predict that The Foxes would be relegated. However, months later they replaced him with an unkown 19-year-old called Wilfried Ndidi for £17m, a £15m profit, who five years later is arguably even better than his predecessor.
More recently they have parted ways with Harry Maguire for £80m, the highest transfer fee ever paid for a defender, and Ben Chilwell for £50m. In their place has arrived Timothy Castagne (£18m), Çağlar Söyüncü (£13m), James Justin (£8m) and Wesley Fofana (£36m). That they have used the sale of two players to fund four younger, arguably even better prospects whilst retaining a £45m profit is nothing short of transfer wizardry.
It doesn’t end there though. They replaced Riyad Mahrez with James Maddison for a £40m profit, Danny Drinkwater left for £35m and has looked a shadow of the player since, the list goes on. When it comes to transfers, they have a clear plan and it works.
Leicester’s scouting set up is arguably the best in the country right now and, although it is perhaps unreasonable to expect Palace to match their success, they should at least try to emulate the approach. Having recently invested £20m in revamping their academy, and secured Category One status in the process, they have made an excellent start.
Palace have produced a number of academy prospects who have become stars in recent years such as Zaha, Tyrick Mitchell and Aaron Wan-Bissaka, the latter becoming the most expensive full-back in the history of football when they sold him to Manchester United for £55m.
The academy is the long game though and won’t solve Palace’s current problems. In the short term, Palace must invest heavily in, and then trust, their scouting system to capitalise on their assets and begin to refresh their decaying squad. Agreeing to a transfer for Wilfried Zaha is the natural starting point.
The Ivorian has been eager to test his abilities at a club chasing silverware and prove his worth in European competition for a couple of seasons now. He also has a point to prove to himself after his move to Manchester United in 2013 was a disaster. At 28-years-old, it won’t be long before his value begins to decline and the opportunity for Palace to command a huge fee for his services disappears. Especially with just two years remaining on his contract.
Palace’s reluctance to grant Zaha a transfer is understandable, given how they famously struggle to win in his absence. However, the success of Eberechi Eze since joining the club from QPR in the summer should give them reassurance that there other exciting talents out there and they can find them. With players like Ismaila Sarr and Emi Buendia eager to return to the Premier League, as well as cheaper alternatives across the continent, if Palace play their cards right a sizeable fee for Zaha could allow them to breathe new life into their attack.
One thing is for sure, Palace’s aging squad is only going to get worse, not better, and desperately needs young blood. Without the ability to spend as freely las the bigger clubs in the division, The Eagles have little option but to operate shrewdly in the transfer market if they are to progress further and agreeing to a transfer for Wilfried Zaha may be the logical first step. They shouldn’t fear life after Zaha though, Leicester wouldn’t.
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