Back in February 2018, Crystal Palace suffered an injury crisis ahead of a stretch of games including the likes of Tottenham, Manchester United, Chelsea and Liverpool.
Joel Ward, Martin Kelly and Scott Dann were all absent, leaving the Eagles defence particularly threadbare. Roy Hodgson’s only alternative at right back was twenty-year-old Aaron Wan-Bissaka, an academy product overlooked by the England youth teams, whose only youth international appearance had actually come for DR Congo’s Under-20s – in an 8-0 loss to England’s Under-17s.
Nevertheless, he received plaudits for his performance against Tottenham, retained his place against Manchester United and Chelsea, and was subsequently named Palace’s Player of the Month for March.
Wan-Bissaka ended the 2017/18 season with seven league appearances, his defensive statistics notably impressive. He managed a gargantuan 4.1 tackles per game, complimented by 2.1 interceptions per game, making him somewhat of a defensive juggernaut.
His pace, athleticism and anticipation make him a very difficult opponent to beat. Having always played as a striker or as a winger in the younger age groups, a conversion to right-back one training session – facing Wilfried Zaha, one of the best dribblers in the Premier League – demonstrated his talent for defending, with Zaha himself acknowledging: “I was kind of shocked by how good he was. I’ve played against a few decent right-backs and he’s one of them.”
Aaron Wan-Bissaka has made more tackles (91) than any other player in Europe’s top five leagues so far this season.
Only a lucky seven have successfully taken it past him. pic.twitter.com/4TETkce0it
— Squawka Football (@Squawka) February 8, 2019
Nevertheless, his star performances constituted a small sample size, and it remained to be seen whether he could maintain that level for a longer period of time. Fast forward to February 2019, however, and it is now clear that Wan-Bissaka is the real deal. His 3.84 tackles per game is behind only Everton’s Idrissa Gueye and Leicester’s Ricardo Pereira, and he’s within the top ten players regarding intercepting and dribbling, the latter revealing his aptitude for attacking to boot.
The 21-year-old has now made four appearances for England’s youth teams, the latest being for England’s Under-21 side – but it is now time to give Wan-Bissaka serious consideration for a senior call up.
Following Gareth Southgate’s post-World Cup switch to a back four, Wan-Bissaka does face heavy competition, as it allows Kyle Walker to play in his natural position rather than as a makeshift centre-back. Walker, despite periods of poor form this season, leading to Pep Guardiola temporarily dropping him from the Manchester City starting eleven, remains England’s best option, experienced and in his supposed prime as a twenty-eight-year-old.
He combines the pace and athleticism to be a difficult opponent to beat with good passing skills, having become accustomed to Guardiola’s demanding style of play. England’s other two serious options are Kieran Trippier and Trent Alexander-Arnold – Ashley Young at thirty-three should be discounted considering his age and the quality of alternatives.
Watched first half of Saints/Palace and second half of Liverpool/Leicester, so saw Aaron Wan Bissaka and Ben Chilwell turn in 45 excellent minutes each. We’re in good hands for the future at full-back.
— Sam Tighe (@stighefootball) January 30, 2019
Trippier starred at the World Cup for England, with quality deliveries from open play and set pieces topped off with the infamous free-kick in the semi-final against Croatia. Nonetheless, Trippier has had a poor season for Spurs though, with countless mistakes – including a misplaced pass that cost Spurs their game against Manchester United at Wembley not too long ago – disrupting his season.
His 0.8 interceptions per game is the lowest of the right-back candidates, and his strengths as a player are emphasised as a wingback, where he is able to cross and provide key passes higher up the pitch, with extra cover behind him. This was demonstrated at the World Cup, and, following Southgate’s reversion to a back four, Wan-Bissaka’s performances warrant his selection instead.
Trent Alexander-Arnold, at a younger age than Wan-Bissaka and playing for the league leaders with the best defensive record, has a significant advantage regarding England selection. Having played as a central midfielder in the Liverpool youth teams, his passing – in terms of both execution and range – is appreciably better than the Palace man, evidenced by his superb switch of play to Andrew Robertson in the lead up to Roberto Firmino’s goal away to Manchester City.
Alexander-Arnold, however, despite being a more rounded player than Trippier, similarly has passing as his most significant strength, and is comparably worse than Wan-Bissaka in terms of defending and dribbling. Alexander-Arnold could well be England’s future right-back for years to come, but, whilst Wan-Bissaka is playing at a similar level – arguably higher, in fact, albeit in a worse team – the Palace stalwart deserves an equally fair opportunity for England.