Connect with us

Manchester United

‘It was a shock to me’ – How Aaron Wan-Bissaka adapted to Manchester United and rescued Old Trafford career

Aaron Wan-Bissaka has fought back from the brink of an early exit at United under Erik ten Hag

It was when Aaron Wan-Bissaka touched down in Perth with the Manchester United squad in July 2019 that he truly realised what he had got himself into. After one season in the Crystal Palace first-team, the right-back had made the leap to Old Trafford for a fee rising to £50million, becoming the sixth most expensive defender of all-time on the back of just 42 Premier League games.

Then aged 21, Wan-Bissaka was a symbol of United’s ‘cultural reset’ under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer. He was young, British and hungry. But he was also unexposed to anything like life in the goldfish bowl at Old Trafford, where the glare is blinding and the scrutiny relentless.

Wan-Bissaka spent his 2018 pre-season in Denmark and Sweden, before games in Oxford, Stevenage and Reading. As a promising player at Palace, he could walk around London without being recognised on a regular basis. A year later he was in Australia, Singapore and Shanghai, being mobbed by thousands of fans and realising just how big the club he had joined was.

“As soon as we landed at the airport, it was a shock to me, but it’s good to see how big the fanbase is around the world,” said Wan-Bissaka.

Pressed on the differences between Palace and United, he said: “It’s everything, all eyes are on you. It was just different to what I’m used to you, everything is more intense.

“It can be hard, especially outside of football. You go for a meal or something with family and fans are coming up wanting pictures and autographs and stuff. I don’t think they always understand when is the right time to approach or not.

“When I was at Palace I used to see players from other clubs, what they go through, what to expect, so when it happened it’s hard to deal with it, but you just block it out and focus on the main thing which is football.”

Wilfried Zaha, who joined United before returning to Palace, told Wan-Bissaka about the “crazy fan base”, but the right-back was also moving from home in south London to new surroundings, leaving family and friends behind to join United and the adaptation wasn’t easy. He initially travelled back south on a regular basis, but recently some of his friends have moved to the north west and he is spending more time in Manchester than London.

He has also recently become a father and his status in the United squad is on the rise. Sources around the training ground say he has come out of his shell in the last few months, appearing more confident and jovial within the group and initiating conversations rather than waiting to be approached.

It all gives the picture of a player beginning to feel more comfortable at United. He sat down for this interview on his third pre-season tour with the club, chatting in a hotel room in San Diego, and opening up more than he has done in the previous four years combined.

He has been averse to the media spotlight and never seemed bothered about enhancing his own profile. He hasn’t posted on Twitter since March 2022 and restricts Instagram posts to images from games.

But inside the club, his personality is now beginning to show and that has developed from his lowest point as a United player. Before the World Cup last season, he played just four minutes of football and time looked to be up. He ended the season as the first-choice right-back, starting in the FA Cup final to cap an impressive renaissance and rescue his Old Trafford career. It was the feeling that it might be over before it had truly begun that sparked that recovery.

“You have that feeling [it could be over], but for me, I always have that faith in myself to get myself out of situations like that. I had my head screwed on and I was ready to do what it takes,” he said.

“It can go both ways. You can just sit there and complain about it and not care, or you can actually try and I thought the best way was for me to try. Gaining that hunger to fight for my position and wanting to play, wanting to impress the manager and help the team.

“It was a hard time and the only thing you can do during a hard time is keep working. It’s quite hard to motivate yourself to train hard. Because you be telling yourself, “What am I training for? When I’m not gonna be playing.” But I just had the mindset, I’ll train for myself. Just to get the best out of myself.”

Diogo Dalot was the first-choice right-back at the start of last season and one of the early stars of the Erik ten Hag era. But while Dalot’s attacking output and understanding of Ten Hag’s demands saw him preferred, Wan-Bissaka opted to knuckle down, while dad Ambroise and close friends told him to keep doing what he was doing and stay positive. He hired a personal trainer and masseuse away from Carrington as part of his fight to earn another chance.

While some players out of the side would knock on the manager’s door and demand an explanation, Wan-Bissaka still remains in the dark about why he was out of favour, but he does know that Ten Hag wants him to “be more aggressive going forward, be in the right places, even if you don’t get the ball, you open a space for someone else, overlapping runs.”

United went on a training camp to Cadiz during the World Cup and Wan-Bissaka found it productive. When Dalot picked up an injury during the tournament in Qatar, he was ready to step in, but it was only after a few games that he really felt the tide was turning.

“I’d say in the right direction, probably after January. I felt it. I was in the right direction, I felt good about myself, I was happy. I just wanted to keep improving,” he said.

Wan-Bissaka’s 160 games for United have produced just two goals and 11 assists and improving those statistics is something he is focused on this season. He neatly sums up the difference between Palace and United by pointing out that his own training drills have shifted from a focus on defence to attack.

One area he needs little tuition in, however, is tackling. Wan-Bissaka has been nicknamed ‘The Spider’ due to his tackling ability and the tendency to stretch those long legs to get an unexpected foot to the ball, infuriating attackers in the process.

He goes easy on teammates in Carrington, saving his most memorable tackles for matchdays, and says the skill is entirely self-taught, having only converted to the role of full-back from winger late on in his academy days.

“I was never taught it, just happened naturally,” he said. “I realised I was alright at tackling around 18, but it just caught the eyes of the coaches when I was training with the first team at Palace. That’s when I realised it was a special trait.

“That moment [to go in] could be any time really, you’ve just got to be focused. You have to be confident with it. You can’t be half-hearted.”

One of Wan-Bissaka’s best this season came on familiar territory, throwing out a leg to deny Zaha a one-on-one at Selhurst Park in January to protect a point for his side. The winger laughed about the incident on TV after the game and Wan-Bissaka said it brought back memories of his time at Palace. He bumped into Zaha in the car park after the game and shared a joke about the moment.

Wan-Bissaka’s ability to defend one-on-one also came into focus when he shut down Brighton’s Kaoru Mitoma in the FA Cup semi-final at Wembley in April. During the game, James Maddison took to Twitter to hail the United defender as “ridiculously good at one-v-one defending. Probably the best in the world bar none. So many wingers run out of ideas when playing directly against him.”

Not that Wan-Bissaka was immediately aware of the comments. He says his Twitter exile is simply a result of not being logged in, although he describes it as a “dark place”, but he also makes an effort to avoid the stream of feedback that can come a footballer’s way on social media, particularly after a game.

“I never do that, no matter how the performance is, good or bad,” he said. “It is tempting. You could run into it, but I don’t go looking.”

After a sometimes tricky start to life at Old Trafford, Wan-Bissaka would probably find the comments are far more positive now ahead of his fifth season as a Manchester United player.

Click to comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Editor's picks

Copyright © 2023 Legittrust