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Aaron Wan-Bissaka; how a stop-gap for Crystal Palace became Manchester United’s most expensive defender

The announcement that Manchester United had reached an agreement to sign Crystal Palace Player of the Year Aaron Wan-Bissaka was met with widespread excitement among supporters of the club. The Croydon-born right-back, who is yet to turn 22, reportedly joined the Red Devils for a fee potentially rising to £50 million. His capture was in response to a new record being set for the number of goals conceded by United in a Premier League season, which was broken during an abysmal 4-0 defeat to Everton at Goodison Park.

Over the last 18 months or so, Wan-Bissaka has developed a reputation for being a tough opponent for even the best players in the Premier League. As such, he represents a seemingly obvious solution to United’s defensive woes, being a defender who is exceptionally skilled at defending. But it is worth noting that he began his career as a winger and was only asked to play at right-back due to a player shortage in Crystal Palace’s U23s during pre-season in 2016.

He has previously stated that his background as a winger has enabled him to get into the mind of his opponent, thus making it easier for him to stop them. This is something that previous United managers have attempted to achieve with Ashley Young and Antonio Valencia, who only begun playing at full-back regularly around the time they had turned 30. Wan-Bissaka meanwhile, made his league bow at the age of 20 against Tottenham Hotspur and proceeded to impress in games against United, Liverpool and Chelsea soon after that.

It’s safe to say he took to the Premier League like a duck to water and has often been a standout performer against the top sides, including three impressive showings against his new employers. Statistically speaking, Wan-Bissaka outperformed United’s most frequently selected fullbacks in the Premier League; Ashley Young, Luke Shaw and Diogo Dalot. From a defensive perspective, he outranks them all in terms of tackles won, interceptions, clearances and blocks made per game.

He also ranks level with Dalot with respect to the number of times he is dribbled past by an opposition player per game, which is made more impressive by the fact that Wan-Bissaka had played far more minutes. The case is similar when it comes to the number of fouls he concedes per game, where he is bettered only by the seldom-used Matteo Darmian. This results in Wan-Bissaka being booked much less frequently than United’s first-choice full-backs, Shaw and Young, with a total of four yellow cards in the Premier League.

This is considerably fewer than the United full-backs, who were booked 11 and eight times respectively, with Shaw being forced to serve a suspension towards the end of the season as a result of receiving his tenth booking. In addition to this, Wan-Bissaka also managed the highest tackle success rate by a full-back in the Premier League, winning a staggering 94% of all tackles attempted during the season. He also won the most tackles and had the most interceptions of any defender in the Premier League.

This, of course, could be attributed to him playing for a Crystal Palace side who, with all due respect, would be expecting to do a higher volume of defensive work than United. That being said, Palace did have five more clean sheets than United in the Premier League last season, so a similar volume of work is possible in 2019/20. These impressive statistics have led to Wan-Bissaka being deemed a defensive full-back, perhaps due to his perceived lack of attacking contributions.

Wan-Bissaka is yet to open his goalscoring account as a professional, and his return of three assists last season is fewer than that of Shaw. An immediate contrast can be drawn between Wan-Bissaka and his former Crystal Palace teammate, Patrick van Aanholt, who has contributed significantly for Palace and his previous club Sunderland in attack, having scored at least five goals in the league in the three seasons prior to 2018/19.

He also contributed more than four assists in each of his first two seasons as a Premier League player, although these have dried up in recent times for Palace, whose wide players provide the bulk of assists. Upon making his first-team debut at Crystal Palace, Wan-Bissaka quickly developed an understanding with Andros Townsend who often started games in front of him at right midfield. Townsend, being left-footed, frequently tucks into the inside right channel, thereby allowing Wan-Bissaka to provide width on the overlap should the opportunity present itself.

United often operated with a similar setup on their right-hand side, mainly due to the lack of an out-and-out right winger. Jesse Lingard, Juan Mata, Marcus Rashford and even Romelu Lukaku were started as the right-sided attacking player, although all of them prefer playing centrally. This meant that the width on the right was predominantly provided by the right-back; Ashley Young being most frequently used in that position.

Young, a former winger himself, was tasked with providing dangerous crosses from the right flank, which is evidenced by his average of 6.6 crosses per game in the league, compared to the opposite full-back, Shaw, who averaged 1.8 per game. Young’s accuracy from these crosses is of particular interest, as he averaged 5.2 inaccurate crosses per game. This illustrates just how many opportunities were wasted by United after they had worked the ball into a crossing position for Young, who was unable to pick out attackers in the box nearly 80% of the time.

Wan-Bissakas crossing accuracy in the league last season was slightly worse than Youngs, with him having 0.3 accurate crosses and 1.3 inaccurate crosses per game, giving him an accuracy of 18.75%. He does, however, have the advantage of being nearly 13 years Youngs junior, thus giving him greater scope for improvement, something which is being emphasised by United’s current coaching setup. It is a sentiment echoed by Wan-Bissaka himself during his first official interview as a United player.

There are still positives to take from Wan-Bissakas attacking play, despite the lack of numbers to back it up, namely his ability to drive in dangerous low crosses which, when accurately delivered, are incredibly difficult for defences to deal with. Carrying the ball forward has also proven to be one of Wan-Bissakas better attributes. Being a former winger, he does possess significant technical ability and is often able to dribble past opposition players.

This is supported by Wan-Bissaka having the most successful take-ons by any defender in the league, resulting in 1.7 successful dribbles per game, which is nearly twice as many as Shaw (0.9 per game), who had the highest among the United full-backs. To further put this into perspective, Wan-Bissakas 1.7 is the same as Paul Pogba, who had the most successful dribbles per game at United last season. Wan-Bissaka, as one would expect, is a different kind of dribbler to Pogba.

He combines his natural attributes with skills he learned as a winger in order to provide impetus to the attack when driving forward from right-back, using body feints, his quick feet or sheer speed to beat his man. This proved to be especially useful early on in his time as Palaces’ first-choice right-back, as opponents had not seen too much of him to be able to correctly predict what he was going to do. This is perhaps the first major challenge he will face at United, now that every other team in the league has a full seasons worth of footage available for analysis.

Wan-Bissaka will also have to improve his game to make the most of these dribbles, either by playing the ball forward earlier or by linking up with the right-sided forward. Being just 21, he has plenty of time on his side to improve his decision-making, particularly in the final third. This is likely to determine whether or not he will be a success at United, who have a long history of exceptional full-backs. It is no doubt going to be key for Ole Gunnar Solskjaer to integrate Wan-Bissaka into his team as quickly as possible, before looking to improve his attacking output.

Solskjaer himself often profited from the services of full-backs and wingers during his time at United, while Mike Phelan previously played as the right-back for United, albeit nearly three decades ago. The experience of both Phelan and Michael Carrick are likely to be called upon when it comes to mentoring not only Wan-Bissaka but all the clubs young players.

It is worth noting that Marcus Rashford, the returning Axel Tuanzebe, Wan-Bissaka and fellow new signing Daniel James will all turn 22 this November and it could be a while before United sees the very best of these players. In conclusion, it is worth remembering that even the better players in United’s current squad are only in their mid-20s and many of them are still plagued by inconsistency. Wan-Bissaka is going to need time to adapt to playing for United, both from the mental and tactical perspectives.

Written by Shiven Nayager

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