Football’s postponement was unfortunately timed for Manchester United. With their 2-0 win over Manchester City and 5-0 thrashing of LASK, they had just extended their unbeaten run to 11 games. It felt like things might finally be coming together under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer.
Bruno Fernandes, a revelation since his £68m move from Sporting Lisbon, and Odion Ighalo, another January signing who has hit the ground running, have attracted most of the plaudits for the side’s recent improvement. But it is not just the new faces who deserve recognition.
A good portion of it should be reserved for Aaron Wan-Bissaka.
The 22-year-old’s defensive prowess has been evident throughout his first season at Old Trafford. Wes Brown described him as one of the best one-on-one defenders he had ever seen in conversation with Sky Sports in January. Jamie Carragher was similarly complimentary after he had kept Raheem Sterling quiet in last month’s Manchester derby. “I don’t think anyone would get the better of him,” he said on Monday Night Football.
But what’s most encouraging for United fans is that the right-back is beginning to develop attacking qualities to complement his defensive strengths. The one criticism of Wan-Bissaka this season has been that he has not contributed enough offensively. Now, however, a player so difficult to beat at one end of the pitch is becoming difficult to contain at the other.
It could be seen during the 2-0 win over Chelsea in February, when he twisted and turned away from Willian before producing a wicked cross to set up Anthony Martial’s goal, and while that was only his second assist in the Premier League this season – he has some way to go to catch Trent Alexander-Arnold in that regard – there has been plenty more evidence of his improvement.
It is plain to see in the statistics. Since Manchester United’s 4-1 win over Newcastle on Boxing Day, when Wan-Bissaka burst past Jetro Willems and set up Marcus Rashford’s goal, his numbers for crosses, dribbles and chances created per 90 minutes have all increased significantly.
His assists total could easily be higher too. There have, of course, been occasions when his delivery has let him down, but at other times it has been the profligacy of his team-mates.
In January’s 2-0 loss to Liverpool, his volleyed pass across the six-yard box was somehow missed by Andreas Pereira. Against Burnley a few days later, his dangerous deliveries produced a string of opportunities that Martial and Juan Mata were unable to take. In the 0-0 draw with Wolves after that, he created a glorious chance for Diogo Dalot to win it at the death.
Wan-Bissaka has benefited from the introduction of Fernandes, whose class and composure on the ball has lifted the entire team, and it has also helped to have a new target for his crosses. Ighalo’s arrival at Old Trafford raised eyebrows, but the former Watford man is a natural centre forward who thrives off the kind of service an overlapping full-back can provide.
The pair have only spent 139 minutes on the pitch together so far – Ighalo was still building up his fitness – but the early signs are encouraging. Ighalo is already averaging three times as many touches in the opposition box per 90 minutes as Rashford or Martial. “We’ve not had too many numbers in the box,” acknowledged Solskjaer in February.
Wan-Bissaka can now send the ball into the danger zone knowing there is a far greater chance of it ending up in the back of the net. What’s more important, though, is that he is no longer inhibited by a lack of confidence in the final third. Wan-Bissaka appeared uncomfortable in the opposition half during the early months of the season, but he now charges forward with the same aggression and intent with which he defends.
It is hardly surprising that it took some time for Wan-Bissaka to build up that confidence. He may have started out as a winger in Crystal Palace’s academy, but he broke into the senior side as a full-back and, with Wilfried Zaha granted attacking freedom in front of him, his sole priority in Roy Hodgson’s side was to ensure they were not exposed defensively.
He did that superbly, of course, and it is a testament to his character that he was able to continue in the same way this season despite all the pressure and expectation that comes with a £50m move to Old Trafford.
Many young players would have struggled with the step up, but Wan-Bissaka took it in his stride, going straight into the side on the opening day of the campaign and keeping his place ever since.
Solskjaer has repeatedly praised Wan-Bissaka’s work ethic, describing him as a “humble, hard-working lad with great values” in December, and it is typical of him that he is now using the lockdown to reflect on his progress so far and assess the areas in need of further improvement.
“Part of my plan for coping with all the spare time is watching back our games from this season,” he told United’s official website this week. “It gives me the chance to look back over what we’ve done and learn from it for when we’re allowed to get back to doing what we love.
“When you look back at our performances from the early weeks of the season compared to how we were playing in the weeks before lockdown, the improvements are clear to see. You can see how confidentoolwe’re getting in front of goal and we’re just getting better as a team.”
Wan-Bissaka was referring to United’s collective improvement, but those comments could just as easily have been made about himself. Recent evidence suggests he is developing into the complete full-back Manchester United always expected he would become. The hope now is that he will pick up where he left off when the action resumes.