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 been highly sought-after this transfer window, and he now looks set to become Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s second summer signing after the Red Devils reached a £50m agreement for his services.
Naturally with any emerging fearless youngster there’s an element of hype, but the numbers regarding Wan-Bissaka paint a different story. A near ever-present in 2018/19, having only missed three of Palace’s 38 league outings, the Londoner made himself practically undroppable.
Hodgson, who can be pragmatic at the best of times, wasn’t expecting goals or creativity from Wan-Bissaka – he failed to score last season and provided just three assists – but rather, he was required to be an old-fashioned full-back whose primary task was to make the opposing winger’s day a misery. For a better part of the campaign he 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.”
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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 one of only three full-backs in that group. An incredible feat given that list includes the likes of Virgil van Dijk (76.32%), Harry Maguire (72.69%), Joel Matip (70.17%), Shane Duffy (70%), Jan Vertonghen (67.08%) and Wes Morgan (66.67%) – all archetypal physical defenders.
Wan-Bissaka won 249 of his 377 duels (66.05%) which undoubtedly gave many wingers pause for thought. If that’s not enough of a concern, he registered the most tackles won in 2018/19 of any defender (90).
A standout performance notably came against Southampton when ‘AWB’ won six of his attempted six tackles. In terms of single game performances, there were few who matched the Palace full-back’s perfect defensive display that game, with César Azpilicueta against Manchester City on matchday 16 registering the highest, with eight tackles won, but taking 13 attempts.
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 35 league appearances last season only nine individuals managed to dribble past the Palace full-back, while he also made more tackles (129) than any other Premier League defender.
Aaron Wan-Bissaka made more tackles (129) than any other Premier League defender in 2018-19; only these nine players dribbled past him:
Leroy Sané x 2
Jóhann Berg Guðmundsson pic.twitter.com/jovyiVWbym
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A look at the list and it’s a who’s who. The magnificent nine include Manchester City pairing Leroy Sané and Bernardo Silva as well as two of the league’s most accomplished wingers in Liverpool’s Sadio Mané and Tottenham Hotspur’s Son Heung-min. The rest were Stuart Armstrong, Felipe Anderson, Jóhann Berg Guðmundsson, Luciano Vietto and Ademola Lookman.
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’ll make the odd mistake here and there but every game is a learning experience. For all his hustle and bustle he only committed 23 fouls across the season. More ominous is the fact he was one of only two defenders in the Premier League with 40+ tackles made (129), take-ons completed (61) and interceptions made (84) – alongside Ricardo Pereira.
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, which now looks destined for Old Trafford.