South London has long been a fertile ground for prodigious footballers. Crystal Palace, in geographical proximity, have certainly benefited and Aaron Wan-Bissaka – the latest off the Eagles’ conveyor belt of talent – is destined for big things.
The 21-year-old right-back, who only broke into Roy Hodgson’s first-team a year ago, has already been linked with the likes of local rivals Chelsea and both Manchester clubs.
Naturally with any emerging fearless youngster there’s an element of hype, but the numbers regarding Wan-Bissaka paint a different story. Near ever-present this season, having only missed one of Palace’s opening 25 league outings due to suspension, the Londoner has made himself near undroppable.
Hodgson, who can be pragmatic at the best of times, isn’t expecting goals or creativity from Wan-Bissaka – he’s yet to score this season and has one assist to his name – but rather he is required to be an old-fashioned full-back whose primary task is to make the opposing winger’s day a misery. For a better part of this campaign he’s done just that and then some.
A date with Zaha
To get a good idea how difficult Wan-Bissaka can be ask his teammate, and the club’s most important player, Wilfried Zaha. During a practice match against the first team Wan-Bissaka, who started out as a striker, was asked to play at right-back. “Wilf didn’t get past him once,” former first-team coach Kevin Keen would later say.
Zaha, not used to being humbled, was anything but angry, instead realising what a talent Palace had on their hands. “I was kind of shocked by how good he was,” he recalled. “I’ve played against a few decent right-backs and he’s one of them.”
They shall not pass
It’s one thing performing where there’s little pressure but Wan-Bissaka has translated that desire to shut Zaha down into the big leagues. If we look at defenders, he’s in the top ten when it comes to percentage of duels (100+) won this season.
Going even further Wan-Bissaka, is the only full-back in that group. An incredible feat given he’s only behind Virgil van Dijk (75.6%), Shane Duffy (73.1%) and Harry Maguire (72.4%).
Wan-Bissaka, so far, has won 176 of his 261 duels (67.4%) which undoubtedly is giving many wingers pause for thought. If that’s not enough of a concern, he leads the way in tackles won (91) from 98 attempted.
A standout performance came recently against Southampton when ‘AWB’ won six of his attempted six tackles. In terms of single game performances, only Ben Davies against Leicester City and César Azpilicueta against Manchester City, both on matchday 16, have made more (8) though Davies attempted four fewer (9 vs. 13).
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Get past him if you can
What’s fast becoming a badge of honour in the Premier League is getting the better of Wan-Bissaka – across his 24 league appearances this season only seven individuals have dribbled past the Palace full-back.
A look at the list and it’s a who’s who. The magnificent seven include Manchester City pairing Leroy Sané and Bernardo Silva as well as one of the league’s most accomplished wingers in Liverpool’s Sadio Mané. The rest are Stuart Armstrong, Felipe Anderson, Jóhann Berg Guðmundsson and Luciano Vietto.
An unstoppable nightmare?
There’s a skill in being simultaneously efficient and ruthless. Wan-Bissaka, with his best years ahead of him, is gradually learning this art. Hodgson, speaking after Palace’s 2-0 win over Fulham, was relieved to discover his young star was human.
“He actually made a mistake in the 94th minute and I was relieved because I was starting to think he might be a robot,” he told reporters.
Such has been Wan-Bissaka’s relentless form, we’ve become used to the level he’s operating at. He’s not reached the elite, but that’s only because he’s still on the journey. He’ll make the odd mistake here and there but every game is a learning experience. For all his hustle and bustle he’s only committed 16 fouls on 15 opposition players. More ominous is the fact he’s the only player in the Premier League with 40+ tackles made (91), take-ons completed (40) and interceptions made (57).
We are, after seeing these numbers, witnessing an emerging star. Wan-Bissaka’s defensive game is impeccable – don’t take my word for it, ask those who have come up against him. If he can become a threat going forward then all bets are off. Already there are positive signs; despite only creating 0.4 chances per 90 minutes, he completes a lot of take-ons himself. Now it is about getting in the right positions and taking that next step.
Host Jake Entwistle is joined by Sam Long and Will Hall for this week’s Squawka Talker to discuss Man City 3-1 Arsenal, the Bundesliga title race, Gonzalo Higuain’s start to life at Chelsea, the best of the rest beyond the ‘Big Six’ and the upcoming El Clasico.