Aaron Wan-Bissaka has had a very strange year indeed.
The former Crystal Palace man was linked with an exit from Manchester United practically the moment Erik ten Hag’s appointment was confirmed just over a year ago. Rumours that the Dutchman had already made his mind up about Wan-Bissaka prior to boarding a flight to England were rife – a transfer away from Old Trafford was all but certain.
It never materialised, despite a fairly underwhelming preseason for the defender. His staying at the club seemed more to do with a lack of interest than from anything Ten Hag saw in the player. Even right up until the transfer deadline, reports were swirling over the possibility of a loan move to put Wan-Bissaka in the shop window, while the likes of Sergino Dest were said to be preferred targets of the manager.
And up until the World Cup, it seemed as if Wan-Bissaka had little or no purpose at Old Trafford. In the first four months of the season, the fullback managed just four minutes of Premier League football, coming on late in the day to help see out a 2-1 win over Liverpool. It was therefore no surprise that the United man was thought to be up for sale again in January.
But an injury to Diogo Dalot – who at this point was, for all intents and purposes, United’s only option at right back – opened the door. Wan-Bissaka made his first competitive start under Ten Hag in the Carabao Cup against Burnley on December 21st, answering the criticism of his attacking productivity with an assist, a couple of marauding dribbles up the pitch, and an 83% passing accuracy – not to mention some exceptional skill to trap a series of hospital passes from stand-in keeper Martin Dubravka.
Since then, Wan-Bissaka has started in ten out of twelve possible Premier League matches, five of Man United’s six Europa League ties, and featured heavily in every Carabao Cup match – including the final, for which he was brought on at half-time to shut out a dangerous Allan Saint-Maximin. His outstanding performance yesterday was his third FA Cup appearance, with Dalot starting the other two matches at right back, although the Portuguese also started yesterday’s match, albeit at left back.
On this side of the Qatar World Cup, Wan-Bissaka looks to be very much Ten Hag’s first choice on the right-hand side of the defence. And why wouldn’t he be? United have kept 14 clean sheets with him in the team, often relying on his ability to lock down his flank against even the most skilful of attackers. Karou Mitoma must have wondered what on Earth was happening at Wembley, given the ease with which the Japan star had taken to English football before yesterday’s game.
In the Premier League, Wan-Bissaka has been dribbled past on just one occasion. For context, Luke Shaw, Tyrell Malacia and Diogo Dalot have been dribbled past a combined 28 times in this campaign. As Leicester City playmaker James Maddison puts it, he is “Ridiculously good at 1 v 1 defending. Probably the best in the world bar none.”
But we all knew he was great at that part of the game. When Ten Hag rolled into town, the question-marks surrounded the defender’s ability to contribute to United’s attacking game. But since his reintegration into the side, Wan-Bissaka has shown a marked improvement in his capability on the ball, completing 32 take-ons and creating 17 chances in 27 appearances in all competitions (Squawka). Those underlying numbers would suggest that assists are on their way from Wan-Bissaka, even if his final ball may still need some work.
Based on his current rate of progress though, it would be unwise to bet against him improving in that area as well. He has already taken exceptionally well to Ten Hag’s demands off the ball and is increasingly aware of where he needs to be to create space for his team, be it via an overlap, a foray into the middle of the park, or a dropping into the defensive line. Wan-Bissaka is coming along nicely both technically and tactically under the Dutchman.
It would be safe to say that this time last year, the majority of United fans would have agreed that the team lacked a convincing right back. Man United have not spent a penny on the position, and yet now have two. While Wan-Bissaka deserves plenty of praise for pulling a Lazarus with regard to his career at Old Trafford, Ten Hag’s influence cannot be understated.
Right back was considered a problem position for the recruitment team’s consideration not so long ago, but perhaps Wan-Bissaka’ rise can free them up to deal with more pressing concerns.
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