Club requires right-back. Club scours the globe for right-back and is seemingly linked with every possible right-back you’ve heard, or never heard of.
Club is on cusp of announcing arrival of right-back. Then… club finds some reason to torpedo the deal and, instead, sign no-one and look in-house for solution. Turning instead to someone who operates in a completely different position and has never played right-back in his life – or someone vastly inexperienced, mediocre or past his best – to fill said key position.
This has basically been Manchester United’s mantra for identifying and acquiring players in crucial positions over the last five summers.
But, with Aaron Wan-Bissaka’s arrival, United have actually selected a round peg for a round hole. How about that. This sends a signal that Ole Gunnar Solskjaer might actually know what he’s doing after all.
Wan-Bissaka this week became United’s second signing of the summer, after Daniel James. And while some Red Devils fans will fail to be enamoured by the capture of a tentative talent rather than a shiny star, the club are belatedly doing what they’re supposed to. Buying players in positions they, well, require players.
A young, talented home-grown player, Wan-Bissaka is an exciting acquisition. He’s not fully established by any means. Arriving at a gargantuan fee that could eventually rise to £50million is eye-popping for a player who’s only just completed his first full season of professional football.
The Croydon-born defender not only has to adapt to the news he’s replacing Rio Ferdinand as United’s most expensive defender, but he now sits behind only Paul Pogba, Romelu Lukaku and Angel Di Maria as the club’s fourth costliest signing ever. No pressure then.
But Wan-Bissaka doesn’t strike you as someone who is overawed or nervous. Having made tentative steps at Crystal Palace with seven appearances at the tail end of the 2017/18 season, he played 35 of 38 Premier League games last term and looked like a seasoned veteran.
He was second only to Watford’s Etienne Capoue for most interceptions (84) in the league, while only two more players in Europe’s top five leagues made more tackles than his 129 (Wilfred Ndidi and Idrissa Gueye).
Meanwhile, now ex-team-mate and former United player Wilfried Zaha painted a picture of a young man purely interested in the game and bettering himself on the field.
“Unless you speak to him, he will not say a word,” said Zaha, who himself is expected to leave Selhurst Park.
“That’s why people like him. He doesn’t really chirp up much – just comes in, does what he has to do, then goes home.”
Defensively excellent, “Spider” – nicknamed because of his long legs which plenty of Premier League attackers have come into contact with – remains a work in progress going forward.
He contributed sparingly as a rampaging modern full-back is required – although he did post three assists (4th), 61 dribbles (2nd) and 0.3 crosses per game (3rd) among Palace players.
You feel that’s an aspect of his game that he’ll have to improve going forward at United, but one he is also in the right environment to develop.
Wan-Bissaka’s, like James, is not a big name that will get the younger portion of the fanbase purring, but it should permeate more positivity among the older, wiser generation.
Those who are aware that for all the many things to blame for the club’s current decline, not filling voids post – and indeed even pre – Sir Alex Ferguson’s retirement is chief among them.
Gary Neville knew he was finished as a top-level pro at United on New Year’s Day 2011. United barely escaped The Hawthorns with a fortunate 2-1 win against West Brom – Javier Hernandez scoring the winner after the hosts had missed a second-half penalty.
Red Devils legend Neville had been roasted by Jerome Thomas and said famously in his autobiography a few years later: “The end came for me on New Year’s Day, 2011 – and it came on a toilet at The Hawthorns.
“It wasn’t the way I’d have chosen to finish, but I knew for certain that this was my last game.”
Neville announced his retirement a month later. Eight years have passed and United have failed to find a long-term successor. John O’Shea and Wes Brown were more than able deputies during their Old Trafford careers but Brown, then 31, and O’Shea, 30, both left the club for Sunderland that summer.
Fiery Brazilian Rafael da Silva was seen as the heir apparent at right-back and he got his chance when the aforementioned trio left. But after 169 games he departed for Lyon in 2015 with archaic Louis Van Gaal favouring a 3-4-3 formation, and preferring either Antonio Valencia or Jesse Lingard at wing-back.
Rafael made just 11 appearances in his final season before departing for Ligue 1. The ensuing four years has been a real comedy of errors in United’s defence. But especially at right-back where initially Chris Smalling and Phil Jones were deployed, to cut their teeth.
Converted wingers Valancia and Ashley Young have filled in admirably without ever fully looking the part while Matteo Darmian arrived in the same summer Rafael departed after a promising season with Torino in which he’d been named in the Serie A Team of the Year.
He enjoyed a decent debut campaign but once Van Gaal was jettisoned, he was never able to convince Jose Mourinho of his worth – it’s hard to do when you’re a right-back playing on the left side of defence most of the time.
Diogo Dalot enjoyed an impressive opening season in red – especially in attack – last term and he’ll provide adequate cover for Wan-Bissaka in 2019/20, while also furthering his own development.
A lot of panic has – probably understandably – emanated from United fans in the early part of this summer due to a catastrophic season. But Solskjaer’s first two signings suggest he is actually taking a methodic and sensible approach to the market this summer.
It is contrary to the last five years when Ed Woodward has assumed a mad professor role, wildly throwing cash at big names in the hope they can conjure some magical formula to get United out of the deep malaise they have fallen into.
That formula has not been found with just two signings, far from it. Solskjaer still needs to acquire at least three more players he is targeting – a centre-back and two central midfielders the priority.
But it is a sensible approach. James sparked it and now a right-back has been found. It’s a tentative start in getting United right back to the top where they belong.
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