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Not Yet a Modern Fullback, But Wan-Bissaka Is Filling in Nicely at United.

When you think of United’s, now ever-present right back, Wan-Bissaka, you immediately think – Spider! Probably because it is the insignia mostly prescribed to him on social media, and for good reason. Most likely due to his, now widely recognizable, penchant for rapidly deploying elongated legs, and scooping the ball from opponents just as easily as you’d scoop an ice cream sundae with an ice cream spoon.

It is amazing the sheer amount of times he is able to initiate and execute this move successfully. Less the rare mistimed tackle, his signature move is strikingly triumphant, like a hurriedly mashed super combo on a Nintendo Entertainment System controller d-pad, you know it is coming but you are generally powerless to stop it – and it feels like cheating. No one should be able to wield that power at will.

I am going to try to buck popular perception by rebelling against the spider pseudonym. I reckon this impressive tackling technique is more aligned to and mirrors more closely, the capability of a frog. Discretely speaking, their stupendous ability to launch their tongues at prey with incredible precision and speed. The Atlantic article on this provides an apt description.

"When its tongue hits, the impact knocks the target away at an acceleration 12 times that of gravity. And yet, somehow, it doesn’t fly off. It sticks. The tongue’s own inertia causes it to elongate significantly during the outward rotation, increasing the frogs’ capture range and their ability to take an insect by surprise. The tongue is like a trampoline and a baseball mitt—it stretches but also catches you." - The Atlantic

Wan-Bissaka is the bouncer you can hardly get past as you try to gate crash your favorite posh night club, even if you bring some impressive looking friends along. He is a colossus on the right side, one vs. one, he presents a formidable challenge to any player. His ferocious recovery speed and ability to extend his limbs like an accordion barricade frustrates even the best in class.

Sterling was once consistently unleashed on him by City, several duels later Guardiola gave up and switched Sterling to United’s left side where he found more joy and was a lynchpin in their EFL semi-final win against United. In basketball lingo, Wan-Bissaka would be referred to as a shutdown defender. He is the undisputed tackle king and has successfully defended his crown multiple seasons in a row.

His ferocity when it comes to tackling is more cyborg terminator than a premier league football player. His 138 tackle haul this season in the Premier League is best in class, only Tottenham Spurs Pierre-Emile Kordt Højbjerg has tackled more footballers (77) than Wan-Bissaka (75) this season. The United right-back also currently leads the league in blocks (100) and is third in interceptions (69) – bested by his skipper Harry Maguire, who leads the league with 55 interceptions.

And yet the attributes that make him the reckoning he is in direct combat, could also be serving as an underlying condition that might metastasize and limit his seemingly unfettered potential. Wan-Bissaka’s ability to stop or recover the ball might be contributing to his lack of attention to positioning. The paradox of over-reliance on one’s innate strengths.

Yes, he can overpower opponents who foolishly decide to duel with him directly, however, the bouncer can’t bounce what he can’t see, and opponents aware enough about this chink in the armor can capitalize on this fragility to devastating effect. Why avail yourself to extreme punishment, and in-his-pocket mockery, when you could slip past him on his blind side?

In the same Carabao Cup match referenced earlier, you immediately notice how much space is between Wan-Bissaka and Phil Foden who has ghosted behind him as he ball-watches and dedicates his full attention to the action zone ahead of him with Sterling carrying and progressing the ball. To be fair, excessive ball watching is the Achilles heel of most of the current United squad as you can track all of the United players locked into and staring at the same action zone, utterly unaware City players have taken up supremely advantageous positions in zones they should be guarding - effectively giving Sterling multiple passing outlets.

By the time the Foden is posturing to deliver the ball in this frame, Wan-Bissaka can only make up half the distance and ultimately gives up a dangerous cross into United’s penalty box.

One anecdotal observation is that he is positions noticeably even narrower when Lindelöf, a considerable slower defender, is selected as the right-sided center back, and his recovery ability is stretched when Rashford is deployed on the right side. Rashford usually shuns defensive duties. Greenwood used to follow suit but has considerably gotten better at tracking back and helping out to stymie overloads on that side.

Wan-Bissaka is not a youngster, however, the 23-year-old can work to correct this weakness. It is not an insurmountable task to sharpen up the mental aspects of his game. Recent improvements in some areas of other noted weaknesses give solidity to this assessment. In his first season, there was a chorus of pleas from fans for him to be more adventurous and effective on the attacking duties further up the pitch.

Luke Shaw has risen like a phoenix from the ashes of his own mediocrity, fueled by the emergence of a worthy challenger in the form of Brazilian cross specialist Alex Telles. Shaw has responded with a tour de force that has been mesmerizing to witness – on form he is currently the best fullback in the EPL.

You will notice from the infographic provided by Smarterscout, an analytics outfit that presents data in a delightfully consumable way – less jargon, more easily understandable scoring on a 100-point scale, that Wan-Bissaka is deliberately working more on his link-up play, currently scored at 92 this season, significantly up from last season (79).

His supremacy pertaining to ground duels when another player has the ball is cognitively acknowledged, but seeing the 99/100 score is still eye-popping! He still has quite a way to go in working on intentional positive passing, his current score for passing towards the goal is timid (6), but he has the rest of the season to improve on that. For example on how things can improve quickly, Shaw had a 9 score in this pass towards goal category last season but currently has a 41 score this season. Wan-Bissaka has also improved drastically on his ball retention (81) compared to last season (59).

With the Shaw and Wan-Bissaka axis, United has perfect equilibrium at the starting full-back positions. However, Wan-Bissaka has notably begun taking deliberate steps to become less predictable in the final third.

The gangly right-back is now varying his runs, foraying deeper into the opponent’s box, rather than casually orbiting outside of it, fidgeting nervously with the ball and succumbing to familiar frequent bouts of indecisiveness on whether to breach the penalty box or supply a cross, before ultimately resigning to pass the ball backward, blunting the thrust of the attack and exacerbating the impotence of United’s right-wing. This season you will find him attempting to put in dangerous balls into the box, providing assists, and even goals – he has scored 2 in the EPL so far, the only fullback with a higher tally is Leeds United Northern Irish defender Dallas (4).

Aaron Wan-Bissaka striving to improve need not be an exercise in diminishing returns. Two birds in hand, don’t have to be the opportunity cost of the bird in the bush. He can keep persisting with his defensive solidity, as evidenced by his top percentile defending quality/quantity graphic, and gradually work on upgrading his attacking toolkit.

In the visual graphic above, he is stacked against relative peers in the league, Shaw his United teammate, and the pair of Liverpool full-backs who have set the standard in recent seasons for their prowess at being significant contributors in the attacking arsenal for Jurgen Klopp up the pitch. Each graph contains the exact same parameters just shown in different visuals so you can detect rather quickly what level a player has to reach to be on par with his peer.

Like any life endeavor, this is all about strengths and weaknesses relative to others, getting a measure of the skill gap, and fashioning intentional plans to bridge them. He only has to improve, the mission should not be to become exactly his peers, a carbon copy is not necessary.

Ultimately, it falls upon Ole Gunnar Solskjær to provide a worthy challenger to Wan-Bissaka in that right position to hasten his progress, just as Shaw was inspired to kick on when Telles showed up at Carrington. At a minimum, it will also ensure much-needed rest for his first choice back. There is a beautiful balance already in United flanks, Wan-Bissaka only needs to continue filling in the gaps – and he is doing that rather nicely.


Note: Data is from the current season 2020-21 up till last EPL game week 23 Sat 6 Feb.

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