Manchester United have paid a whopping £50m to sign Aaron Wan-Bissaka. Is the young right-back ready for the step up? Will he succeed where his Crystal Palace team-mate Wilfried Zaha did not? He has all the tools to shine, argues Nick Wright.
It is only 18 months since Aaron Wan-Bissaka walked into Roy Hodgson's office at Crystal Palace's Beckenham headquarters and asked permission to leave the club on loan. The academy product had already trained with the first team, impressing players and coaching staff alike, but he was yet to make his senior debut and he was reluctant to wait any longer.
Hodgson heard him out, allowing him to air his frustrations, but he already knew his answer. "I made a point of saying no," he recalled in conversation with Sky Sports in March. "I told him I believed in him and that I wouldn't be averse to putting him in the first team should the opportunity arise."
As it turned out, Wan-Bissaka only had to wait a few more weeks for that opportunity to present itself. A wave of injuries opened the door to him, and he came through a baptism of fire against Tottenham, Manchester United and Chelsea with his reputation enhanced. "He got in there, he did well, and he never looked back," added Hodgson.
Wan-Bissaka slotted in seamlessly at right-back despite playing as a winger throughout his youth career, and last season his progress gathered pace. In total, he started all but three of Palace's Premier League games, winning their player of the year award and ultimately convincing Manchester United to part with £50m to take him to Old Trafford.
It is a huge sum, the most United have ever paid for a defender, but it is not difficult to see how they landed on him. This summer has seen United shift the focus of their recruitment to young British players. In Wan-Bissaka, who follows Daniel James, also 21, to Old Trafford, they are getting one the best and most exciting in the country.
Perhaps the most striking thing about watching Wan-Bissaka, despite his background as an attacking player, is the zeal with which he approaches defending. It has been apparent to everyone at Palace since he repeatedly thwarted Wilfried Zaha during his first training session with their first-team in 2016. Now it is well known to Palace's Premier League rivals, too.
His long legs help him get up and down the flank with ease, and he also uses them to excellent effect in the tackle. Last season in the Premier League, he made a total of 129. It was 11 more than any other defender in the division.
Wan-Bissaka was not quite as prolific as Leicester's Wilfred Ndidi or Everton's Idrissa Gueye, but while the rest of the Premier League's top-10 tacklers were dribbled past on an average of 55 occasions, Wan-Bissaka was only beaten 10 times in 3,135 minutes on the pitch.
For context, Liverpool's Andrew Robertson and Trent Alexander-Arnold, the two full-backs named in the PFA team of the year and widely regarded as the best in the Premier League, were beaten 31 and 32 times respectively.
Wan-Bissaka's numbers are extraordinary. They highlight his status as one of the most effective one-on-one defenders in the Premier League. But it's not just his tackling that stands out. Wan-Bissaka also made 84 interceptions, putting him second only to Watford's Etienne Capoue. That anticipation and awareness, at just 21 years old, is hugely impressive.
Last week's costly own goal for England's U21s against France at the European Championships was a reminder of Wan-Bissaka's relative inexperience. It is probably also fair to say that more will be expected from him in an attacking sense at Manchester United. But as a young full-back who excels first and foremost as a defender, Wan-Bissaka is a rare thing.
Temperament to match talent
Another of his major strengths is his temperament. Wan-Bissaka's old youth coaches at Palace remember hours of extra work on the training ground in his late teens as he made it his mission to become a full-time full-back. He made the same kind of impression on Hodgson after stepping up to the first-team squad permanently at the start of 2018.
"From the beginning, I saw him as a very quiet person, someone who took his football seriously and worked very hard to impress in training sessions," he told Sky Sports. "It's a testament to his temperament that he took his chance so well, and also to the fact that he buckled down and made certain that he was going to make the very most of his talent."
Wan-Bissaka's transfer to Manchester United will inevitably draw comparisons with Zaha's move there in 2013. His fellow Palace academy graduate went to Old Trafford as a thrilling prospect but returned to his boyhood club having been unable to make an impact. He has since spoken candidly about how difficult he found it.
"I didn't know what to expect, how to behave, whatever," he told Sky Sports last year. "I was just a youngster who wanted to do tricks."
Zaha eventually emerged stronger from the experience, but Manchester United can be confident Wan-Bissaka will not suffer the same kind of setback. He is two years older than Zaha was, for a start. Most crucially, though, he has already demonstrated the kind temperament required to cope with the pressure and expectation that comes with the territory. Nothing seems to faze him.
"What I like about him is that he continues to work hard at his game, and the professionalism he shows," said Hodgson when the speculation surrounding his future was ramping up in February. "He has kept his feet so firmly on the ground when a lot of good things are being written or said about him. It doesn't seem to have bothered him at all."
Wan-Bissaka will need to show the same attitude at United. His departure is sad news for Hodgson and everyone at Palace. For his new club, though, the excitement is justified. As he heads from Selhurst Park to Old Trafford, he will be grateful that his loan request was not granted. Eighteen months on, Aaron Wan-Bissaka has never looked back.
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