The Rise of Aaron Wan-Bissaka: A lot of the Time I Can’t Get My Head around it
Evidence Aaron Wan-Bissaka does actually do flustered surfaced at a little after 2pm last week. The novice full-back who had confronted and contained Christian Eriksen, Alexis Sánchez and Eden Hazard on his first three senior outings and has established himself as the most prolific and cleanest tackler across Europe’s elite five leagues, was backstage at his old school, Good Shepherd, when his name was announced inside the assembly hall.
The boy from New Addington turned Crystal Palace full-back had anticipated an audience with a couple of classes at most, so the ear-splitting din summoned by the excitable throng, 250-strong, rocked him on his heels. There was a flicker of apprehension, a sheepish smile as he edged into the hall, and disbelief at the delighted bedlam. “It’s mad to see,” he offered once the Q&A and quiz had been successfully negotiated. “A lot of the time I can’t really get my head around it, but it shows I’ve come a long way. I have to be grateful.”
Wan-Bissaka is slowly coming to terms with the adulation, even if trips back to this corner of Croydon tend to labor the point. His parents still live round the corner from the school, across from the sloped field where he first ventured out with his older brother, Kevin, for a kickabout. “There’d be balls flying everywhere, a free for all. The council would cut the grass every now and then and we’d play proper 15-a-side matches, and I’d be first pick, even though I was probably the youngest. It was the skills. The free-styling. I loved watching Thierry Henry and Ronaldinho expressing themselves, so that’s what I copied.”
These days the kids tend to spot his car on his visits home, before camping outside the Wan-Bissakas’ house, taking turns to ring the doorbell and pester for an autograph. Up at the community center in nearby Fieldway, where the Palace for Life Foundation teams up with Croydon council and the Metropolitan Police to run coaching courses aimed at tackling youth violence, he is the poster boy. Wan-Bissaka is the local lad, from one of the borough’s poorest wards, made spectacularly good.
Most remarkable is the ease with which he has taken to the Premier League. At 14 there had been a debate at Palace as to whether Wan-Bissaka, a quiet, gangly kid, should be retained. By early 2017 the boyhood Arsenal supporter was still essentially striving to make his mark at a club brimming with wingers. Twelve months ago, as an unused fourth-choice right-back, he had pushed for a move to League Two. On Saturday he faced West Ham as the best one-on-one defender in the division this season having mustered more successful tackles (66 of 91) than anyone in the Premier League, Bundesliga, Serie A, Ligue Un or Primera Liga.
He is the only player in England to boast 40 or more tackles, completed take-ons (40) and interceptions (57), and only seven opponents have successfully wriggled beyond him. The raw numbers are mind-boggling. More striking still is the deflation he instills in opponents as those telescopicl legs – his nickname is “Spider” – wrest back possession. And all this from a player – his nickname is “Spider” – who has never received any formal coaching on how to tackle. “No, none. Never. I have no idea where I get it from, and I’m just as confused when I see all the stats. I’d never tackle on Walton Green. I was too busy doing the tricks, and I just didn’t like defending. I’d intercept the ball because I was quick, but I only probably started tackling in the under-23s.
“I’d always been a forward, from playing above my age group at [the local grassroots club] Junior Elite, where my brother played – he was better than me – to joining Palace at 11. I went through all the teenage stuff, where you don’t see the pathway and do things without thinking, but Palace and my dad, Ambrose, snapped me out of it. He’s always been a guiding light: ‘Keep going, work hard, things will turn.’”
The then first-team coach, Kevin Keen, had hauled him from the academy to make up the numbers and was impressed with the way he succeeded in nullifying Wilfried Zaha. Yet it was the under-23 coaches, Richard Shaw and Dave Reddington, who took the plunge by employing the tearaway winger at right-back in a 2-2 draw at Charlton. The rookie was exposed at times.
“I really didn’t enjoy it,” said Wan-Bissaka. “I couldn’t express myself going forward, the defending was all new, and I came away thinking: ‘This isn’t me.’ I never said anything, but Redders and Shawsy knew. They started working with me, doing second sessions, practicing defensive drills. That’s when it started.
“Training up against Wilf and Yannick Bolasie toughened me up. When I was younger my playing style was like Wilf’s, so that sort of gave me a heads-up, but he’s still a tricky one. As an ex-winger, you get a sense of what they’re trying to do: which way they might go, how they’re thinking. You can anticipate things easier. When Roy Hodgson changed my timetable to full-time with the first team, I knew I was making progress even if I still never played.
“Last January there was interest from League Two in a loan but towards the end of the window nothing had happened and I was panicking. I asked Brighty [Mark Bright, the club’s director of under-23s’ development] to put the question in, and he came back saying the manager wanted to see me. I went in on my day off, just before the first team were training.
“I was in the changing-room for 30 minutes, waiting, only for [Hodgson] eventually to come in and say he didn’t feel I’d benefit from the type of football I’d play at that level, and that I should stay and learn. I was a bit upset because I’d really wanted to go. I just didn’t see myself playing any time soon. But he actually made me put my kit on and train then and there.”
It would take an injury crisis four weeks later to offer an opportunity to become the first academy graduate to make his debut for the senior side for 2,148 days. “On the day before the game with Tottenham Hotspur I’d counted up there were 19 of us training, including two other under‑23s, so I was sure I’d make the bench. We all piled into the analysis meeting where they put the lineup up on the whiteboard. I’d always scan the bench first, at the bottom, because I’m realistic. But I wasn’t on it. I was gutted. I don’t know who tapped me on the shoulder first, but that made me look at the top of the list and there I was, second down, at right-back.
“Spurs, Christian Eriksen ... the first thing that went through my mind was it was going to be a long afternoon. But the manager clearly had faith in me. My aim has always been to make him proud because he gave me a chance. I went to bed earlier than usual that night, and was buzzing until I got to the ground on match day. Then, 10 minutes before kick-off, the nerves kicked in until the first tackle. It was on Ben Davies. He cut in-field away from me and kept running, but I don’t think he knew I had such long legs. I chased him down, slid in and took the ball to set up a counter. I wasn’t shy. I never looked back from that.”
The ensuing weeks brought encounters with Sánchez, Marcus Rashford and Hazard. “He [Hazard] was the toughest. He’s just busy. I’m not saying I can’t read him, but he does so much on the ball, and off it too. He doesn’t just get it and pass it on. He always does something: maybe not directly against me, but something that affects me somehow, dragging me out of position, freeing someone else up to run at me. He’s so clever, one of the best. At the same time, those are the situations you learn most from.”
Wan-Bissaka’s form has been a revelation to such an extent that, when he gave the ball away at the end of last weekend’s victory over Fulham, Hodgson admitted to being “relieved because I was starting to think he might be a robot”. Nothing has fazed Wan-Bissaka, other than possibly the plaudits. He has the episodes of Match of the Day, from the opening weekend win at Craven Cottage and the startling 3-2 success at Manchester City in December, when Alan Shearer gushed over his brilliance, performance Sky-plussed back home.
Gareth Southgate has taken notice before next month’s Euro 2020 qualifiers. Wan-Bissaka once played up front for DR Congo’s Under-17s in a friendly at St. George’s Park, but has since represented England to Under‑21 level and the Football Association, having lost Victor Moses and Zaha to Nigeria and Ivory Coast, will be anxious not to let another prospect nurtured in south London slip away. “Yannick spoke to me about Congo, and it was an option, but my parents said they’d support me either way. As a kid, playing for my country was a dream. It would be such a huge honor.”
First, though, Wan-Bissaka has progress at Palace to occupy his mind. The pupils at Good Shepherd, with whom Palace for Life hopes to work as it extends the project which has seen coaches placed in 35 primary schools, had mobbed their hero at the end of the assembly, the full-back swamped by a pile of adoring fans. Typically, he emerged unscathed: utterly unflappable after all.
The Guardian Sport