Wan-Bissaka is weakest link in Man United title tilt

Something had to change for Manchester United at half-time of a familiarly dull game in which neither full-back had created a single chance. Frozen not just by the cold weather but by the fear of being exposed by the pace of Wolves’ counter-attacks, Nemanja Matic was sitting on the toes of Harry Maguire, while Alex Telles was being creatively castrated as United’s opposition once again overloaded their left side, safe in the knowledge that giving Aaron Wan-Bissaka space to operate on the right was no more dangerous than handing a small child a pair of safety scissors with rounded ‘blades’.

In a different dimension, Solskjaer might have switched his right-back to give Wolves something to occupy them on the other flank. But this is Manchester United at the tail end of 2020 and they have somehow found themselves with just one specialist right-back. So it was Telles who was hauled off and replaced by Luke Shaw, a move which helped to turn the rippling wave (it was hardly a tide) of the match as Shaw reprised his promising partnership with Marcus Rashford. Telles has truly been an inspired signing in the very simple sense that he has inspired Shaw to play somewhere close to his potential.

But as Shaw pulled more than his weight in his job-share, Wan-Bissaka continued to be a blunt instrument of fan torture on the right. What is more damning? That he has attempted just 15 crosses this season in 13 games, or that just one of those 15 crosses has reached a teammate? This is a full-back who creates fewer chances than the most defensive of midfielders. He is the place where attacks are laid to rest, killed by a misplaced pass inside or safe nudge backwards to his centre-halves. And in a week when Manchester United officially joined the title race, that is simply not good enough.

As we wrote in November 2019 – and were widely derided by United fans newly enamoured with their defensively excellent full-back – ‘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’. The second option is unlikely and the third is a fairy-tale, so United find themselves looking for another right-back, 18 months after spending £50m on a man well-equipped for the challenge of 2019 but woefully ill-equipped for the challenge of 2021.

The best one-on-one defender in the game is leaving United massively unbalanced going forward. Just 30% of their attacks come down the right, and that is the lowest percentage in the Premier League; lower than both Aston Villa and Crystal Palace, who have deliberately lopsided attacks as their key players operate on that flank. Those numbers can only be partly explained by the lack of a naturally right-sided forward. And whoever does play in that position is hampered by his right-back; he has to provide all the width because there is precious little coming from behind.

United may indeed need a defensive midfielder but I would respectfully disagree with the idea that a replacement for Matic should be a priority in January. The priority should be a full-back with a different set of tools, designed to open doors rather than just nail them shut. If United are too stay in this title race beyond January – and they really can, having largely avoided the injuries and illnesses of their rivals – then right-back needs to become a job-share position. Jump horses don’t run on the flat and United could find themselves in a sprint for the line.

Sarah Winterburn