Wan-Bissaka perfect for full-back-less evolution credited to Pep, ushered in by Ten Hag at Man Utd

Will Ford
Wan-Bissaka Ten Hag Man Utd

Aaron Wan-Bissaka has been brilliant as the farthest right centre-back of four for Manchester United. Is Pep Guardiola getting credit for Erik ten Hag’s idea?

“When it is me against you, he is as good as anyone out there,” Rio Ferdinand said after Manchester United’s FA Cup semi-final triumph over Brighton, eulogising – as everyone always has done – over the go-go gadget legs of Aaron Wan-Bissaka.

Kaoru Mitoma, who has torn right-backs to pieces throughout an incredible breakthrough season, described his tussle with Wan-Bissaka as a “complete defeat” and the full-back’s performance prompted Leicester star James Maddison to take to Twitter. ‘AWB is ridiculously good at 1 v 1 defending,’ he wrote. ‘Probably the best in the world bar none. So many wingers run out of ideas when playing directly against him.’

His numbers are incredible. Of the 2,168 players to have attempted 100+ tackles in Europe’s top five leagues since the start of the 2017-18 season, no-one has a better tackle success rate than Wan-Bissaka. No full-back comes close to his 78.6 per cent success rate from 571 attempts.

There are obvious flaws to Wan-Bissaka’s game. We wrote back in 2019, shortly after he had signed for Manchester United, that he was something of a ’90s throwback: an excellent defensive full-back who provides infrequently and ineffectively in the attacking third. And while there’s been a marked improvement under Erik ten Hag on the front foot, so low was the bar previously, Wan-Bissaka still pales in comparison to his counterparts.

He’s delivered 0.18 crosses into the penalty area per game this season – the same as Southampton’s Mohammed Salisu (a centre-back). Even full-backs deemed to be as defensive as Wan-Bissaka cross the ball more frequently – Tyrick Mitchell (0.28); Seamus Coleman (0.34) – while Big Seven counterparts Ben White (0.38), Reece James (0.43), Kieran Trippier (0.80), Trent Alexander-Arnold (0.83) and Pedro Porro (1.18) do so significantly more often.

There’s no chance Ten Hag would rather have Porro than Wan-Bissaka, and the glaring exclusion of a Manchester City full-back begs another question: is Wan-Bissaka actually perfectly suited to a full-back-less future?

Pep Guardiola’s decision to loan Joao Cancelo (0.63 crosses per game) to Bayern Munich looked very strange before Manchester City started playing arguably the best football the Premier League has ever seen while fielding four centre-backs.

After a period in which full-backs and wing-backs have been seen as the make-or-break keys to success, particularly in England, where the battle for ascendency in the national team has been at the forefront of selection debates, Guardiola has ripped up the rulebook once again, deciding not to bother with them altogether.

And with Guardiola something of a trend-setter in the Premier League, this latest evolution could be ideally suited to Wan-Bissaka and Manchester United.

Fans and pundits have previously questioned whether United should switch to playing with wing-backs, to allow Wan-Bissaka to play on the right of a back three. But that wouldn’t prevent the need for summer additions, with Diogo Dalot unlikely to be a right wing-back solution, and even if he is, a backup would still be required.

On what looks likely to be a tight summer budget, with a striker – likely a very expensive one – an absolute necessity, any method of reducing the required outlay in other areas will be considered. And Guardiola has unwittingly provided United with that solution.

Pep Guardiola and class

Although, it could be contended that Guardiola’s disregard for full-backs was Ten Hag’s idea all along.

Wan-Bissaka and Luke Shaw are full-backs by nature, but the former doesn’t attack and the latter has been forced not to for much of the season as he’s literally been playing at centre-back. You could make a case therefore that a Manchester United back line of Wan-Bissaka, Raphael Varane, Lisandro Martinez and Luke Shaw actually features four centre-backs. Not as blatantly as a back four of Nathan Ake, Ruben Diaz, Manuel Akanji and John Stones, which is perhaps why Guardiola’s being heralded as the instigator.

The summer signing of Tyrell Malacia if anything provides further evidence for this revolutionary ploy stolen from Ten Hag by Guardiola, with the Dutchman as defensively minded as any full-back in the Premier League.

If anything, assuming there’s no way back for Maguire, United need centre-backs this summer, not full-backs, after a potentially era-defining tactical shift credited to Guardiola but seemingly ushered in by Ten Hag at Old Trafford, where they’ve got Wan-Bissaka ready-made as the farthest right centre-back of four.