Manchester United‘s revival has had its stars, but it’s been a team effort, and Aaron Wan-Bissaka showed against Manchester City that he’s been as important as plenty of his team-mates.
The former Crystal Palace man hasn’t stood out as a weak point by any stretch, but there have been times at which he hasn’t felt like a £50million player.
With England stacked at right-back and Euro 2020 just around the corner, it’s time for Wan-Bissaka to begin showing his class against top opposition. The derby victory felt like proof he knows how important it is to do exactly that.
Against City, Wan-Bissaka went toe-to-toe with Raheem Sterling, a man in relatively poor form – at least by his own high standards – but not exactly lacking in quality.
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s United have often provided an easy route back into form for players in the middle of a rough patch, but there was no danger of Sterling even getting an opportunity to do such a thing.
A stand-out moment came towards the end of the first half; one of the most “this is my house” moments you’re ever likely to see from a full-back. It was, in no uncertain terms, a remix of the kind of defending which prompted United to bring him north in the first place.
There’s something of the park footballer about Wan-Bissaka. There’s no cleanliness or polished aesthetic, and he has no problem going to ground when others might tell themselves standing up ensures they keep their dignity even as they’re beaten.
It is deliberately and forcefully a tackle and not an attempted tackle. It’s a refusal, rather than a debate. It’s designed as a preventative measure, both immediately and in the longer-term.
More to the point, it was the second time he’d done this to the same opponent. If this kind of manoeuvre isn’t aesthetically pleasing enough then, well, that’s football’s problem rather than his,
Of course, defenders aren’t really allowed to just defend any more, and that’s especially true of United defenders.
The mantra of “attack! attack! attack attack attack!” might have become more spiritual than literal in the last five years, but that doesn’t mean the demands of supporters have changed.
It’s handy, then, that Wan-Bissaka has that in his arsenal too.
His burst into the City box, taking three opponents out of the game, was important for two reasons, the first of which is a demonstration how United’s attack is no longer limited to the point that once you stop one danger-man, you stop them all.
Secondly, though, it shows how the right-back is more than capable of pretty football when he wants to be. The anti-aesthetic of his defending is a choice, designed to be effective and nothing else.
As Wan-Bissake waltzes through the City back-line, the most eye-catching sight is that of Ilkay Gundogan drawing to a complete stop, almost on cue. It’s not as much a case of “wait, he’s allowed to do that?” as one of “wait, he’s allowed to do that too?”
The win over City extended Manchester United’s unbeaten league run to five games, just one shy of their best this season.
However, unlike that previous run – which featured shaky defensive displays in a 3-3 draw at Sheffield United and a 2-2 at home to Aston Villa, the current run has seen only Dominic Calvert-Lewin beat David de Gea (and even then, via a big helping hand from the keeper).
Much has been made of Bruno Fernandes’ impact on the team, and rightly so – the January signing made his mark again in the derby with his smart free-kick to lay on the opening goal – but the solid back-line has been just as vital.
There have been times, both this season and last, where United’s defence has felt like an easy target for free-scoring and profligate attacks alike.
However, with the world watching, Aaron Wan-Bissaka showed we might soon be looking back at this impression and laughing.
By Tom Victor