t says a lot for Aaron Wan-Bissaka that he was not even expected in Perth for the Australia leg of Manchester United’s pre-season tour. The England Under-21 right-back was given three weeks off after signing for United from Crystal Palace for a projected £50 million last month but opted to cut that holiday short in order to fly with his new team-mates to Perth rather than join the tour at the midway point in Singapore. Wan-Bissaka wanted to hit the ground running and familiarise himself with his new club as quickly as possible and the decision made an immediate impression on Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and his staff.
It is the sort of attitude Solskjaer wants to see from his players as he bids to restore some pride and order to a club that has badly lost its way since Sir Alex Ferguson retired six years ago. Some players are seduced by the celebrity and cache that comes with representing United but Wan-Bissaka cuts a most unassuming figure and already resembles the sort of low maintenance professional that Antonio Valencia, his predecessor at right-back, was renowned for being.
Interviewing Wan-Bissaka after an encouraging first outing in Saturday’s 2-0 win over Perth Glory at the Optus Stadium, when he replaced Diogo Dalot at half-time and played firmly on the front foot, the 21-year-old seemed almost painfully shy at times. For a man who talks in quiet whispers, it was certainly hard to imagine him standing in front of his new team-mates and performing a rap by the hip hop artist Meek Mill, which he was required to do last Wednesday as part of his “initiation ceremony” at Silks restaurant in the Crown Towers resort where United are staying in Perth. It was, Wan-Bissaka admitted, a nerve-shredding affair. “I’ll stick to what I know, and that is football,” he said.
Like Daniel James, United’s other summer signing, Wan-Bissaka has thrown himself into the training sessions and Denis Irwin, someone who knows a thing or two about what it takes to succeed as a full-back at Old Trafford, has been struck by their humility.
“Aaron and Dan seem quite humble, I have noticed that in and around training,” said the former United defender, winner of seven Premier League titles and the European Cup. “And they seem quiet – there is nothing wrong with that. They will keep their heads down and work hard because they have a big opportunity here now to play for one of the biggest clubs in the world.”
The challenge, of course, will be coping with the pressure that comes with that. Neither player had made a senior appearance as of 18 months ago so the sudden jump they are being asked to make with United is huge. “I try not to focus on that side, for me it is just about developing as a player and my ability to help the team going forward,” Wan-Bissaka said.
Aidy Boothroyd, the England Under-21 manager, caused a stir when he suggested the speculation around Wan-Bissaka’s future had left the player distracted after an error-strewn display in England’s opening 2-1 group stage defeat to France. It was the first time Wan-Bissaka was really under an intense spotlight and he struggled and was subsequently dropped by Boothroyd but he refutes any notion his head had been turned. “It wasn’t difficult [to focus], I was not focused on that [the transfer speculation] really,” Wan-Bissaka said. “I do not focus on speculation. I just keep my head down and keep doing it on the pitch. Over the summer there was a lot to go through. But it is easy for me to block out, the main thing is just playing football.”
Did he speak to Boothroyd about his comments? “I haven’t spoken to him about that,” he said.
His early impressions of United have been good, and he has been made to feel very welcome. “I have settled in well, the boys have been great. I was surprised, literally from the moment when I walked in everyone has been talking to me, encouraging me with advice. That has helped me a lot.”
Wan-Bissaka will face competition at right back from another youngster, Dalot, and Ashley Young but believes he has much to offer. “I would say [the biggest change to Palace] has been the style of play, the way they work, the intensity,” he said. “That is going to develop me as a player. I always want to be pushed to reach my potential.
“There are many areas [where I can improve]. That is where I am looking to gain confidence in and take it to another level and this was the team where I thought I could do it.”
It did not work out too well for the last player who joined United from Palace. Wilfried Zaha was Ferguson’s final buy, signing in January 2013 but not arriving at Old Trafford until after the Scot’s retirement five months later and, having never got to play for the man who bought him, things unravelled for the winger – as they did for the club.
Zaha made just two league appearances for United over two seasons before returning to Selhurst Park in 2015 after a loan spell with Cardiff City, since when he has gone on to deliver on the potential Ferguson foresaw and left United fans wondering why he never got a fair crack of the whip in Manchester. Zaha’s advice has certainly been important to Wan-Bissaka.
“When he knew that I joined he just told me to play without fear,” Wan-Bissaka said. “I have come here as a new signing and he said, ‘Just play your game and do what I did last season.’ He was happy for me. He said I deserved it and I should continue working hard and doing what I do.”
There will be much tougher tests ahead for Wan-Bissaka but he looked energetic against the Glory, completing 35 of his 37 passes and winning all five of his tackles. His United cohorts have quickly discovered why he is nicknamed “The Spider” with those go-go gadget legs reaching balls that would elude most although his positioning is an area of his game that will need work. Sliding tackles are fine but not if they are too often of the last ditch variety brought about by poor positional play, something Wan-Bissaka recognises.
“I don’t think I learnt it, I think it is just the range of my legs,” he said. “I realised when I was 18 I had the length, so I use it to my advantage. You have got to time it well to make the tackles, but that comes down to concentration. You can’t afford to gamble with it, you have to time it well. After every tackle it gives me confidence.”
With the price tag will come expectation but Irwin is confident Wan-Bissaka will be a success. “He is very quick, a modern day full-back in the fact that he was a winger,” the Irishman said. “He has played very well in the 15 months that I have seen him at Crystal Palace in a defensive role. There is a lot more pressure on him now but hopefully he will be able to handle that. We needed a bit of pace and youth in the team.”
Sources: Man United News