Aaron Wan-Bissaka’s £50m move is all but complete, but what about this deal makes perfect sense for Ole and Manchester United after the fullback’s dizzying ascent in South London?
Time flies and football’s ruthlessness is no exception. Rewind yourselves back to January 2018 and fullback Aaron Wan-Bissaka was frustrated as Roy Hodgson rejected the youngster’s loan request with League Two sides circling in his search for competitive minutes that season. Less than 18 months later, he’s applying the finishing touches to a proposed £50m move to Manchester United: where he’ll become the most expensive defender in club history this summer.
His life has changed drastically since injuries to Joel Ward and Martin Kelly saw him thrust in the deep end that winter, but he was fearless and let his ability do the talking against some of the league’s best attackers. Rewarded with a contract extension that April, the Croydon-born talent made seven top-flight appearances and was heralded as Crystal Palace‘s new gem – one that continued to blossom as the lights shone brightly during the 2018/19 campaign.
Wan-Bissaka made 39 appearances, including 35 top-flight starts as he made the right-back berth firmly his own under Hodgson’s guidance. Palace collectively were wildly inconsistent finishing on a four-game unbeaten run in 12th place, but eight points off newly-promoted Wolves in seventh – who also qualified for the 19/20 UEFA Europa League.
He flourished, barely putting a foot wrong throughout the campaign and given an increased importance on top-quality defenders, it’s no surprise Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and others besides were keeping tabs on his progress.
Bundesliga champions Bayern Munich and fierce rivals Borussia Dortmund were said to be intrigued by the possibility of taking him abroad, mirroring compatriot Jadon Sancho’s recent success in Germany. Had he been patient and continued honing his craft in South London, a lucrative move elsewhere in Europe certainly beckoned.
But alas, he was a boyhood United fan and the lure has proven too much to ignore for a determined 21-year-old with much scope to continue improving. That in itself is scary, given just how good he already is.
£50m is a big fee, even with the market volatile and inflated right now. But it represents a coup for United, who are paying for his current ability and world-class potential, in addition to his English roots – something often overlooked.
Consistent displays should have warranted a first senior cap by now and noisy neighbours City are discovering domestic value the hard way, given their reported pursuit of Leicester’s Harry Maguire. 3,700 top-flight minutes under his belt, he represents a welcome addition to the Theatre of Dreams – one that is perfect for their immediate and long-term future.
It’s not encouraging news from Diogo Dalot’s perspective, with the Portugal under-21 international having signed for £20m himself last summer under Jose Mourinho’s reign. But with 50+ games across all competitions, he’ll also feature. Aaron is simply better and more experienced, so competition for a starting berth will be fierce as the Antonio Valencia era ends this summer.
“Playing every week keeps me motivated and hard-working – but I definitely know what I can achieve in the game. The sky really is the limit for me.” Wan-Bissaka during an interview last year, discussing his potential
His stats speak for themselves: averaging 3.7 tackles, 3.7 clearances, 2.4 interceptions and 1.7 successful dribbles per game for Palace in 18/19. The potential issue arising that those same statistics are skewed given he’s playing for a weaker side, should be overlooked. Why?
Well, that’s why. He relishes playing against top opposition and only Leicester’s Wilfried Ndidi (143) and Everton midfielder Idrissa Gueye (142) completed more tackles than the 21-year-old’s 129 in 18/19: ranking the highest among the league’s defenders.
Comparisons, debates and reflecting on previous mistakes
Naturally given the price-tag and his tender years, comparisons and arguments have already begun to bubble under the surface. Luke Shaw’s cautionary tale after excelling at Southampton is one. The centre-back pairing of Chris Smalling and Phil Jones, heralded as natural successors to Ferdinand-Vidic, is another.
But they’re all flawed in different ways: Shaw sustained a horror leg break in 2015, almost had to have it amputated and despite more injuries since, has since recovered to win the club’s player of the season accolade last month.
Smalling made just 13 league appearances before his £7m move in 2010, while Jones was highly-rated by Sir Alex prior to a £17m Blackburn deal the following summer. The pair were sidelined with persistent injuries of their own and have never fulfilled their true potential. See a theme?
It’s one that Nemanja Vidic himself eluded to last year, that injuries to their old guard stifled the youngsters’ progression over time before they passed the torch. History must not repeat itself here.
Then you get the tiresome comparisons to Liverpool’s Trent Alexander-Arnold, who is a year younger and already has a Champions League medal at home. Therefore he must be superior in every way, thus making this a supreme waste of money! Yeah, not quite. The pair have their respective strengths and weaknesses – Trent is more creative-minded while his defensive qualities aren’t as strong, while Aaron is the opposite.
That France game at the U21 Euros? A blip and signs he has played too much this season without a proper holiday. Transfer talk, as boss Aidy Boothroyd supported, wouldn’t have helped him concentrate either. Of course he’s heading into dangerous territory with such a lucrative move at this stage of his career: one you cannot afford to pass up. Aaron is not naive and his reserved yet hard-working character will quickly revere him to the United faithful.
United are overpaying on face value, but crucially on the right type of player they can build upon for years to come. Premier League revenue means lesser-fancied sides can demand as much as they please, so it’s refreshing Palace played hardball while sticking to their laurels.
Sure, United still have plenty of business to finalise this summer. Addressing their midfield and disjointed attack are priorities, not least with Paul Pogba and Romelu Lukaku seemingly close to lucrative departures. That doesn’t mean they should neglect other areas though, with this representing an important hole filled.
£80kpw for an U21 international might have seemed obscene just a few years ago, but to scoff or ridicule that is trivial at best. What a lot of people don’t know is that at 14, the converted winger was on the verge of being released. Years of dedicated work and sacrifice, with father Ambrose leading the fore, elevated him to the top. Ask any of his academy coaches, they’ll echo the same.
“Aaron wasn’t necessarily viewed as the best prospect at the time – he didn’t have bags of self-confidence. Very quiet, humble and never caused us any trouble.
But what he did always have was those attributes which are so in demand in the modern game – pace, height. It’s great to see him blossoming, he’s an inspiration to our current players.” – Peter Yates, assistant principal of Aaron’s secondary school
The first academy graduate to make a first-team breakthrough at Selhurst Park since Wilfried Zaha, over 2,000 days in the making. While the Ivorian’s future remains uncertain this summer, Aaron has the tools to eclipse the winger’s career and then some.
People forget AWB has plenty to learn and will continue developing with further experience. As much as it’ll hurt Palace to see one of their own go, a £50m fee is one they couldn’t turn down and now must reinvest wisely. Joining a big team in transition under an impressionable coach with an opportunity to quickly become a mainstay? Even rival supporters would begrudgingly agree this appears the perfect move.