Did Manchester United spend £50million on a ’90s style full-back? Aaron Wan-Bissaka is an outstanding defender, of that there is no doubt. In a bygone era he would be considered an outstanding full-back too – the best probably – but in 2019, he’s far from it.
Gary Neville without the crossing ability, far closer to Stuart Pearce than Andrew Robertson, Wan-Bissaka is a throwback to a time when defenders defended and did little else. Not a problem if United are content with Europa League football and the odd cup run, but if they have designs on a return to former glory – like that of the ’90s, ironically – they need to sign footballers suited to the modern game, or be left hoping for a miraculous improvement in the flawed footballers they have signed.
Why is it that the only statistic used to prove the talent of Wan-Bissaka is the number of tackles he makes per game? Simply because the other stats don’t chime with the party line that he’s one of the best full-backs around. 28th on the list of full-backs in the league in terms of key passes, with 0.6 per 90, a long way behind the best (Lucas Digne 2.5) and still significantly worse than Cesar Azpilicueta (1.2), a full-back with – most would say – comparable defensive tendencies. He has a shot every five games (28th full-back), has a lower pass percentage than the likes of Adam Smith and Neil Taylor along with 14 other full-backs, and crosses it half as often as Erik Pieters. It’s hardly a surprise Wan-Bissaka has no goals and no assists.
Or that Gareth Southgate has once again left him out of his England squad. £50m, English and uncapped is an almost unbelievable combination.
Aaron Wan-Bissaka won 6/6 tackles vs. Brighton, no player on the pitch won more.
Unbelievable volume & accuracy. 👏 pic.twitter.com/GVeVOg6hZi
— Statman Dave (@StatmanDave) November 10, 2019
His signing appeared a smart one at the start of the season. United’s defence was terrible so they bought some good defenders, and they now have the third-best defence in the league; so that worked. They also probably thought Wan-Bissaka would be more of a force in the attacking third following a move to Old Trafford. Surrounded by better players – no longer restricted by Roy Hodgson’s defensive Palace tactics – he could show what he’s capable of going forward. Unfortunately – as it turns out – that capability is far less than even the most cynical could have imagined.
United’s 3-0 win over Partizan in the Europa League was a prime example of Wan-Bissaka’s attacking inadequacy. The Red Devils had 64% possession and completed nearly twice as many passes as their Serbian opponents; they walked all over them. The ideal opportunity for your £50million right-back to raid down the channel, get to the byline and pepper the six-yard box. But again it just didn’t happen. In this game, at least, he did attempt to cross the ball, albeit from a deep position, but each time looked like he was delivering it with his weaker foot, no matter whether with his left or his right. While his gangliness aids his defending, useful when curling a leg round to make a tackle or sticking one out to make a vital interception, it hinders him in attack. Like a pubescent teenager waiting for his brain to catch up with the growth of his body, he’s ungainly and it’s uncomfortable to watch.
For a while his conversion from winger to full-back by Crystal Palace – for which Sam Allardyce took full credit – was deemed a positive: Well obviously he’s good going forward, he used to be a winger, and look how good he is at defending as well! It is now clear that he was dropped deeper out of necessity rather than choice – he absolutely wouldn’t have made it as a winger.
Owen Hargreaves on BT Sport after the Partizan game made the now-all-too-common pundit claim that Wan-Bissaka “will be able to pick that up”, in relation to the attacking facet of the game required of a modern full-back – as though that’s the easy bit. Trent Alexander-Arnold and Andrew Robertson are widely regarded to be the best full-back partnership in the world. Why? Because they score and provide assists, not because of their tackles or interceptions. Does Hargreaves shrug at Robertson’s perfect cross for Mo Salah against Manchester City but gush over his body position when he shepherds the ball out for a goal-kick? Was he nonplussed by Alexander-Arnold’s bullet free-kick against Chelsea and question whether he can get the height and distance required of a good clearance?
Facetiousness aside, when the next pundit brushes off Wan-Bissaka’s inability to attack by claiming he “will pick it up” – like a parent unfazed by their child’s inability to ride a bike – just stop and question which is easier, to learn to defend? Or to learn to attack? And you really should come to the conclusion that it’s the former, because of course it is. A coach would much rather have an attacking talent and teach them to tackle than a wonderful defender who can’t cross, shoot or have the vision required to affect the game on the front foot.
That is not to denigrate the importance of defending. Alexander-Arnold, despite his wonderful skill with the ball at his feet, needs to improve when it’s at the feet of an opponent. Raheem Sterling fancied his chances against him on Sunday, and got the better of him on a number of occasions, getting joy he almost certainly would not have had against Wan-Bissaka. But in the Liverpool full-back’s case the juice is worth the squeeze for Jurgen Klopp. The pin-point crosses, the goals, the assists, the chances created and the switches of play are a decent pay-off for the odd defensive lapse.
Frank Lampard has also clearly recognised the importance of raiding full-backs, dropping the aforementioned Azpilicueta – Chelsea captain and stalwart – against Crystal Palace in favour of Reece James, a far more attacking, but more defensively liable option. Full-backs are moving forwards not backwards, but perhaps the signing of Wan-Bissaka mirrors the fading fortunes of the club he’s joined. It might be a symptom of if we don’t concede we can’t lose rather than the let’s see how many f*****g goals we can score attitude of a decade or more ago.
If Manchester United are to lift the Premier League trophy within the next ten years, one of three things will have to happen. They’ll either have to sign another right-back (one that can attack), improve Wan-Bissaka’s attacking ability by an improbable degree, or completely redefine what is required of a full-back in the modern era and take us back to the ’90s.
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