ARTICLES Opinion

Aaron Wan-Bissaka is far from the weakest link in Manchester United’s defence

The reactionary culture of football fandom on social media can be quite hard to grasp at times. The pendulum of the constant game of opinions swings from one extreme to another — there is rarely a middle ground to be found. The backlash from Aaron Wan-Bissaka‘s sending off against Young Boys on Tuesday is a great example of that.

From being a fantastic signing during Ole Gunnar Solskjær‘s first transfer window in charge — arguably the best right back Manchester United have had for over a decade — the Englishman became surplus to requirements with one lapse in concentration.

It was only Wan-Bissaka’s second career sending off. The 23-year-old miscontrolled the ball on a jumpy artificial surface that the Swiss champions play on and in an attempt to retain possession, United’s No. 29 jumped into a 50-50 with his studs leaving a mark on the opposition player. In hindsight, it was needless. But as Solskjær often says, Harry Hindsight is a great player.

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It was an intuitive, split-second decision that came back to bite Wan-Bissaka and United. The Reds went on to lose their Champions League opener 2-1 following the dismissal. But it’s hardly the end of the world. It was game one of six. A disappointing result that United will eradicate almost immediately should they win at home in two weeks.

But the release of pent up frustration from some of the ‘fans’ has been mind blowing. Wan-Bissaka has become such a sure point of United’s defense that those who have not taken a liking to him unleashed — pointing out all of the right back’s weaknesses while completely disregarding the tremendous strengths that make him such a big asset to the team.

Before diving into some numbers, the point of this article is not to belittle another player at United for Wan-Bissaka’s benefit. We are not in the business of doing that here. But direct comparisons for context may occur. The goal here is to emphasize all of the good that Wan-Bissaka has brought to United since putting pen to paper on a five year deal two seasons ago, and also to clear up some misconceptions about his limitations.

Still only 23, Wan-Bissaka has time on his side in regards to further development. At this point it must be acknowledged that his attacking ability just two years into his United career is already night and day compared to what it was when he first arrived. Contrary to popular belief, Wan-Bissaka was statistically United’s best offensive contributor last season from full back with two goals and five assists in all competitions.

Naturally, stats are not everything in football. The eye test matters just as much, as do the intangibles that don’t show up on stat sheets. But one of the most popular ways to discredit Wan-Bissaka’s ability as a footballer is to bring up his supposed inability to attack. But the numbers don’t support that. And this does not mean that it’s not okay to constructively criticize.

Wan-Bissaka will be the first to admit that he has limitations going forward. His defensive numbers are far better than attacking. But similarly on the other flank, Luke Shaw‘s attacking numbers are significantly better than his defensive. But one of them is adored — and rightly so — for being a crucial part to United’s attack. And the other is constantly slated despite being virtually unbeatable at the back.

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The fact of the matter is that United’s full-backs compliment each other very well. While Shaw excels in going forward and creating chances, Wan-Bissaka is excellent at covering, sniffing out danger and canceling out attacks. If they were both as inclined to go forward as Shaw, it would likely bring further imbalance to United’s transition defense, especially with the current midfield issues.

Wan-Bissaka can’t replicate what Shaw does offensively and vice-versa on the other side of the ball. But why is it so exclusive that one’s strengths can compensate for their weaknesses?

While Wan-Bissaka is still developing the attacking side of his game, the progress is evident. He has become a far more willing crosser. And while people are quick to criticize him for not crossing enough, how many take the time to look at the lack of numbers in the box before passing judgement? United are not great at filling the danger area with targets to aim at. Hence why most of Shaw’s assists don’t come from crosses on the overlap, for example.

Wan-Bissaka has also become more comfortable in attacking 1v1’s, albeit there is still work to do. But what has gone extremely under the radar recently are his ball retention skills. While he is not the greatest progressive passer, Wan-Bissaka is excellent at holding possession and breaking out of the press. The right-back completes his passes at an 86% clip which has him in the 93rd percentile in the world in his position.

In addition, Wan-Bissaka is among the world’s best at completing tackles, interceptions and blocks per 90 minutes of play. This brings us to another underrated aspect of his game. The full back loves playing with contact and does not hesitate to put his body on the line. Other than goal line heroics such as the one at the Molineux a couple of weeks ago, the 23-year-old is also outstanding at closing down and blocking crosses — something that United often concede from when not addressed. The intangibles.

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The improvements in Wan-Bissaka’s game are not difficult to spot to your average objective eye, but you have to want to see them. Even his spatial awareness at the back post has improved. United are yet to be hurt that way this season with Wan-Bissaka doing a much better job at checking his blind spots during crosses from the opposite side.

It’s clear as day that Wan-Bissaka is working on his game but patience is very hard to come by in the modern game. People want things to happen overnight but unfortunately life would be too easy if that was the case. Good things come to those who wait. And grass is not always greener either.

You could probably count his bad games for United on one hand. But the good? Not so much. Just ask Raheem Sterling what he thinks of United’s No. 29 if you would like one credible reference. And there are plenty more.

The moral of the story is that no player is exempt from criticism — especially when it is warranted. Wan-Bissaka certainly put United in an uncomfortable position on Tuesday and was one of the reasons as to why the Reds tasted their first defeat of the season. But he was not the sole reason. And to suggest that he is all of a sudden not good enough for Manchester United is borderline laughable.

Wan-Bissaka is not the first and will not be the last player to come out of a 50-50 worse off. And with that said, one rash decision does not make a player who is yet to commit a direct error that leads to an opposition goal in his career surplus to requirements — nor the weakest link of a back line that would undoubtedly suffer with his skills taken away. Because while Wan-Bissaka still has room for improvement in certain areas of his game, he is elite at doing the things that he was signed to do.

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