February 25, 2018. An injury crisis had forced Crystal Palace manager Roy Hodgson to give a 20-year-old his first senior appearance against Tottenham. Little did he know that his fledgling right back would take the Premier League by storm the following season. Just 16 months after his debut, Aaron Wan-Bissaka has moved north to sign for Manchester United for £50 million pounds. It is a rapid rise to fame; he only has 46 first team appearances to his belt, and yet it seems like a fair fee to pay. The club may have found a solution for the right back position for the next decade.
The last time a Crystal Palace youngster made the move from London to Old Trafford, it didn’t go too well. But Wan-Bissaka looks unlikely to follow the path of Wilfried Zaha and return to his previous club. The Ivorian arrived at a time of major change at the club, with Ferguson retiring, and the Moyes era did no good for anyone. It was simply the wrong move at the wrong time, but Wan-Bissaka is much different. Unlike Zaha, Wan-Bissaka will slide right into the first-team squad and will play for a manager that actually wants him at the club. The challenge, more than gametime, will be in handling the eventual criticism that will come his way. At that moment, the club will have to be patient. After all, for all of his talent he remains a youngster and a work in progress.
Initially an attacker, Wan-Bissaka was far from a defender. Like many youngsters, he enjoyed playing up top. Yet he was not special. As he kept plugging away, he was called to fill in at right back in a practice match with the first-team squad. Matched up against Wilfried Zaha, the scourge of many a Premier League full-back, Wan-Bissaka snuffed him out with ease. After nullifying Zaha, it showed the Palace staff that he could have a future there. While he wanted a loan move, Roy Hodgson told him to stay, and eventually he got his chance. A youngster who dreamt of being an attacker instead made his debut at right back, and he hasn’t looked back since.
What’s more striking is his ability to intercept the ball and make clean tackles. He wasn’t a natural tackler, yet he made 129 tackles last season, the highest tackling success rate of any full-back in the Premier League, while he also led in clearances (129) and interceptions (84). For a converted winger playing his first full season, those are outstanding numbers. His defensive assuredness is a quality United have lacked at right back for many years. After trying to jam square pegs into round holes, they finally have a specialist right back who can defend first. With fellow youngster Diogo Dalot offering a more attack-minded option in the same position, it bodes well for the club in that position. It provides much-needed competition, and should eventually benefit both. It’s not that Wan-Bissaka isn’t good going forward, of course, but the nature of United’s playstyle means he will have to attack much more than at Palace. With Dalot behind him, it will only spur him on.
Those that know him point towards his mature, unfazed character. He’s not flashy and will stay out of the limelight, which would be the best way for him to settle in at the club. Despite his fast ascent into stardom, Wan-Bissaka should be able to thrive. His first three games were against Tottenham, Manchester United and Chelsea; his fifth game was Liverpool. Yet he was able to hold his own against the likes of Eriksen, Sanchez and Hazard. Last season, he was sent off against Liverpool in the second game, yet he only missed three games in the league after that, including the suspension. He’s a fast learner, and it bodes well.
Old Trafford will be yet another challenge for him. Yet he is well-placed to overcome that. As long as the club have patience in him, things will be fine. He will make mistakes, yes, but he will also learn and adapt from them. All eyes will be on him if he plays the first game of the season – against Chelsea no less – but he can handle it. If all goes to plan, Manchester United have their right back for the next ten years. For Aaron, the sky is truly the limit.