Wan-Bissaka's game lacks dimension
Background image: Ian McAllister
In the 2019/20 Premier League season’s early doors, Manchester United fans went a bit overboard in their appreciation for new right-back Aaron Wan-Bissaka. It cannot be argued that the 21-year-old’s defending stood out. His positioning and sense of timing on tackles belonged to a 31-year-old defender. In fact, you could say he had a year on Chelsea captain and right-back Cesar Azpilicueta who is only 30.
‘Dave’ isn’t the player Red Devils’ supporters chose to elevate their burgeoning star, however. Instead, they skirmished with Liverpool faithful on social media, claiming that Wan-Bissaka was better than the Reds’ Trent-Alexander Arnold because he was superior in a fullback’s primary duty, preventing opponents from penetrating the defensive box from the flank.
If such a ridiculous assertion wasn’t settled previously, Matchday 5’s Sunday matches involving the two clubs made matters clear. Alexander-Arnold is the more impactful right-back.
The Liverpool man isn’t as skilled defensively as his United counterpart. Nor is he a liability in the manner Alberto Moreno formerly was on the Merseysiders’ other flank. On Sunday at Stamford Bridge, he gave the ball away once or twice on the outside but also made two important interventions in the box. Not far away, in the London Stadium, Wan-Bissaka made the odd poor pass himself but was even more authoritative out of possession.
The difference came at the other end of the pitch. Alexander-Arnold opened the scoring with a brilliant free-kick on the quarter-hour of the teatime match. Earlier, United found themselves behind West Ham in the second half courtesy Andriy Yarmolenko’s goal just before half-time. With his side needing a response, Wan-Bissaka received the ball twice inside the Hammers' 18-yard box with time and space to the right of the near post. On both occasions, he didn’t hesitate to attempt a short cross when he had all day to gather himself and shoot.
To be fair to the United right-back, there is no guarantee he would have beaten Lukasz Fabianski on either attempt had he made them. The Polish shot-stopper made two key saves in the half to preserve the Hammers’ advantage before Aaron Cresswell’s set-piece sealed the deal for the home side. Against Wan-Bissaka, Fabianski was in position and ready on both occasions.
That said, the operative phrase in describing Wan-Bissaka’s actions was ‘didn’t hesitate’. He didn’t look to see whether a teammate was in a better position to score with a clear passing lane between them. In fact, his peripheral vision told him otherwise as evidenced when he tried to dink the ball over defenders on one occasion and blast it through on the other. While the youngster is fully committed to defending, he has absolutely no clue what to do in attack and that matters even if he is a right-back.
When Alexander-Arnold scores or creates a goal, as he has done three times [1G, 2A] this term and 17 last [1G, 16A], he forces opponents to expose his or teammates’ defensive weaknesses twice rather than once. When you consider he’s the weak link in a rearguard that includes Andrew Robertson, Joel Matip and Virgil van Dijk, fronted by Jordan Henderson, each goal and assist amounts to a significant defensive contribution. The old saying that the best defence is a good offence is frequently repeated because it’s true.
Conversely, when Wan-Bissaka’s ineptitude breaks down a United attack, he piles more pressure on his defensive partners, promoting the current argument in football that the best defence makes for a horrible offence. The Red Devils backline comes in for heavy criticism for not keeping many clean sheets. Going into the West Ham match, the Mancs boasted the league’s joint-best defence with only four goals conceded and joint-most clean sheets with two. Despite surrendering multiple goals in this contest, they remain comparatively solid, with just six surrendered in as many games.
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s real problem is his attack. Injuries have something to do with that. Paul Pogba and Anthony Martial weren’t available for the game. Marcus Rashford had to be substituted after pulling up lame in West Ham’s box just before the hour-mark. Mason Greenwood is sidelined, too, with tonsillitis. Clubs aren’t hit with injuries like that when they have veterans like Romelu Lukaku and Alexis Sanchez in reserve.
Relying on young players has its consequences. The Norwegian knew that going into the campaign. The board and fans should have as well. United is engaging in a long-term solution to their woes. There will be more growing pains in 2019/20.
Wan-Bissaka was a shrewd acquisition but the coaching staff must work on his offensive game. Maybe Ole should send him off on his own for a day or two to practise his shooting so that he feels freer to let fly now and then in matches. The Red Devils already suffer from the lack of a potent right-winger. The longer AWB proves an attacking liability, the more opponents will hold the advantage defensively.