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Aaron Wan-Bissaka: Do Manchester United need an upgrade?

Happy New Year folks! It’s 2021 and Manchester United are second in the Premier League behind only Liverpool, whose defeat at Southampton left United with an advantage. Latest in the string of positive results was a hard fought 2-1 win at home against Aston Villa. It was a close game as reflected by the scoreline and central to the scoreline was United’s right-back Aaron Wan-Bissaka. He assisted the first goal for Anthony Martial with a clever run and cross but was culpable along with others in Villa’s first goal. Childishly trying to stop Villa from taking a quick free-kick thus allowing Jack Grealish with time and space to cross in the box. 

These defensive lapses are happening too often and then there is the lack of attacking contributions. Martial’s goal was his first assist and just his 16th cross (joint 41st in the division amongst just defenders) of the season.

There is no question that when it comes to tackling and facing an attacker one on one, there are few better than Wan-Bissaka. But expectations around United are changing. They need to play less and less as an underdog and on counter and more on the front foot, dominating possession and creating chances. For this to happen, can they continue to have a right-back who is comfortable facing an attacker in his own half rather than charge forward and create chances at every opportunity? Let’s look for the answer.

Background

Wan-Bissaka was part of the Crystal Palace academy, where he started out as a winger. Initially getting his chance as a wing-back, he was quickly moved to full-back due to his defensive capabilities. Thrust into the first team on 25 February 2018 in the midst of an injury crisis, he quickly became a mainstay for the Palace defence. Such was his impact in the first full season that he was named Crystal Palace Player of the Year for the 2018-19 season.

His performances at right back prompted Manchester United to sign him on a contract of five years for a fee of £49.5 million. Signed on to replace United’s departing right back Antonio Valencia, Wan-Bissaka was being looked at someone who will own the right-back spot for years to come. 

Defensive Capabilities and Recent Lapses

Known for his tackling and defensive awareness, he has been a key cog of the new Manchester United defence under manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer.

He was a key part of the defence which conceded only 36 goals on the way to third place in the league last season. His performances in key games caught the eye where he was able to nullify highly rated opposition attackers. Such commanding performances in key games have continued this season with the performance against Paris Saint Germain away in Matchday one of the Champions League group stage, being the highlight. He is top of the tackles chart for defenders in both last and current Premier League season.

But there have been lapses and some poor performances in crucial games like the semi-final defeat to Sevilla in last season’s Europa League Semi-final and the defeat in the crucial last group game away to RB Leipzig in this seasons Champions League. Communication with fellow defenders seems to be lacking resulting in getting blindsided by runs in behind. He also tends to get sucked into the centre thus allowing an attacker to creep in at the back post. In summary, though there are no equals when it comes to tackling and defending one on one situations, there are definite areas of improvement. 

Attacking limitations

Attack is where Wan-Bissaka is severely lacking and has massive scope for improvement. He’s just had the one assist and one goal in the league this season and ranks joint 41st for crosses and joint 84th for shots amongst just defenders in the league. Too often passes are either sideways or backwards. Majority of United’s attack are coming from the left side causing asymmetrical attacking. This allows opposition teams to focus more on that area knowing that quick switch of play to the other wing won’t be disastrous. 

One reason for the low attacking output is that United lack a naturally right sided winger and end up playing either Rashford, Greenwood, James or Mata amongst others in front of Wan-Bissaka on the right side. This means it’s tough to form a partnership on the right side and additionally there’s lack of defensive help for Wan-Bissaka on the right. 

All things considered though Wan-Bissaka needs to improve his attacking contribution and there’s no reason it can’t happen. He has good composure on the ball and has a history of playing as a winger. Having a naturally right sided player might help him develop a partnership and get in the penalty area more thus increasing his attacking output but the onus will be on Wan-Bissaka.

Evolution of the position, expectation and Conclusion

The best teams in all of Europe have attacking full-backs. The best full-backs are all known for their attacking output. The game has evolved such that the full-backs are considered an important attacking outlet. Expectation is that the full-back overlaps the winger, provides crosses into the box, is available for through balls from midfield and finally create chances on a regular basis. 

In addition to all of the above, Manchester United find themselves in the midst of an unlikely title challenge. Solskjaer’s reign at United till now has been marred with inconsistency and labelling of the team being comfortable with counter-attacking. But with the recent consistency in form, expectation swiftly shifts for United to dominate possession and take the game to opponents. For that to happen, they need a balanced squad and a balanced attack. Sorting out the right-back spot is one of the key priorities for both to happen. Providing competition for the spot will be a good starting point. United only need to look at the left-back position for evidence. Since the signing of Alex Telles, Luke Shaw’s form has been improved drastically and Solskjaer is able to rotate between them both, thus reducing chance of fatigue and injury. Links with Norwich City’s Max Aarons are welcome. Aarons averages 1.3 key passes and 1.3 dribbles per game this season which are both considerable improvements on Wan-Bissaka’s 0.5 key passes and 0.8 dribbles per game.

Wan-Bissaka is a very good defensive right-back and has the best years in front of him. But from United’s point of view, it’s crucial that attacking output from the right-back spot increases, by a lot. Hopefully that will be achieved by Wan-Bissaka’s own improvement aided by the competition provided by a more attacking right-back. Else they will have to look for an upgrade.

Written by Sandeep Jalui

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