Aaron Wan-Bissaka’s tackles are single-handedly making defending fun again
As Raheem Sterling faced up against the opposition right-back during the first half of the Manchester derby, City fans waited with bated breath as there is usually only one outcome.
The England winger has become one of the most dangerous forwards in the Premier League over the past three years, and he is used to getting his own way in these situations.
However, on this occasion Sterling was coming up against Manchester United’s Aaron Wan-Bissaka, and the 22-year-old rose to the challenge, beating the winger with ease.
Wan-Bissaka’s £45million move to United in the summer was always going to see him draw comparisons with Trent Alexander-Arnold at Liverpool.
The young English right-backs were both set for starring roles at the two biggest clubs in the country, but that’s where the similarities end.
While Alexander-Arnold is a modern footballer renowned for his attacking prowess, Wan-Bissaka is a throwback to the old school defending we were accustomed to in the 90s.
The Liverpool right-back certainly has the more entertaining highlights videos on YouTube, and Jamie Carragher once took relish in remarking that “nobody wants to grow up to be a Gary Neville”.
In fairness, Wan-Bissaka started out as a winger, so he probably didn’t imagine that he would end up as Neville’s long-term heir at Old Trafford.
But defending is still an art form in itself, and Wan-Bissaka has proved that seeing a talented full-back pitting his wits against a top winger can also be riveting viewing.
He takes no prisoners with his thunderous challenges, and even though he has the subtlety of a bull in a china shop at times, the defender also has the ability to perfectly time and execute a tackle.
— Manchester United (@ManUtd) November 26, 2019
Some of his tackles have been as satisfying to watch in slow motion as a 50-yard crossfield pass or an audacious piece of skill, but they don’t ever get the same plaudits.
Wan-Bissaka admits he revels in making a tackle just as a striker loves nothing more than scoring goals. We wouldn’t put it past him to deliberately lose the ball just so he can win back possession all over again.
“I love tackles, man. I want to come out with the most tackles from each game; that’s my aim,” he told United Review.
“I’m not really happy when I come out of a game without many tackles.”
He has also shown that he can adapt to life at United since signing from Crystal Palace, able to cope with the pressure of playing on the biggest stage.
He hasn’t been fazed by the likes of Sadio Mane and Son Heung-Min, but his biggest test was always going to come in the Manchester derby.
There were plenty of interesting battles across the pitch at the Etihad on Saturday but Sterling against Wan-Bissaka promised to be the most intriguing encounter.
These games are usually very cagey affairs, but the Manchester derby started with high intensity as the pair both tried to get a measure of their opponent in the early stages.
While most defenders stand off Sterling, Wan Bissaka had the self confidence and pace to get tight to the City star. It felt like the right-back was almost inviting Sterling to take him on and try and get past him.
Wan-Bissaka vs. Sterling.
— B/R Football (@brfootball) December 7, 2019
Sterling got no joy out of his opposite number as Wan-Bissaka nullified his threat and stopped the prolific attacker from having a single shot on target.
On the few occasions where Sterling looked to have got past the full-back by using his speed, Wan-Bissaka showed great reactive abilities to stop the 25-year-old.
It’s as if he allows the winger to go past him, fooling him into a false sense of security before dangling those long spider-like legs around the attacker and pulling off a last-ditch challenge.
This may seem like a dangerous strategy but it’s a quality that gets supporters off their feet and forwards aren’t the only players who like to take risks.
The defender even won the man of the match award against City after making seven clearances, blocking three shots and making five tackles altogether.
Unsurprisingly, his imperious display also brought praise from a former defender who can appreciate Wan Bissaka’s style of play and defensive abilities.
“He’s a magnificent defender, simply the best one-against-one defender in the Premier League,” Martin Keown told the BBC.
“He’s patient, look how close he gets to his opponent. Sterling has got electric pace but it doesn’t matter because he goes in. He takes charge of things.
“He picks his moment, it’s brilliant defending. His team-mates know he is their best defender.”
Wan-Bissaka isn’t the finished article in the final third, but he is a young full-back who excels first and foremost as a defender.
Old school tackles may have gone out of fashion over the last few years, but Wan-Bissaka is the exception to the rule. And he is also a reminder that when defending is mastered it can be an excellent source of entertainment.