It is an indication of just how far Aaron Wan-Bissaka has travelled in his brief career that there was a ripple of surprise on social media when his name was not included in Gareth Southgate’s England squad this week. Even in these plentiful times for English right-backs, when Liverpool, Tottenham, Arsenal and Manchester City all own a viable competitor, it felt an oversight that the Crystal Palace defender hadn’t made the cut.
Now DR Congo want to convince the highly rated 21-year-old commit his international career to the Congolese national team. Wan-Bissaka has represented England Under-20s and Under-21s but is yet to earn a senior cap, and was omitted from Southgate’s squad for the upcoming friendlies with Czech Republic and Montenegro. The south Londoner is of Congolese descent, and made an appearance for DR Congo’s under-20 side in 2015.
“It depends on him,” DR Congo manager Florent Ibenge tells The Independent. “I sent my scout to watch him four months ago and he sent me a report. He played very well. I won’t pick him for the squad, I want to speak with him first. I called him one month ago but he didn’t answer. He has to want to accept the invitation and want to play for Congo, like [Yannick] Bolasie.”
The former Palace winger Bolasie was eligible to play for France, England and Congo, and eventually accepted an invitation from the latter after rejecting their initial advances. Wan-Bissaka’s current teammate Wilfried Zaha also walked away from the English setup aged 24, having played two friendlies but no competitive games, choosing to represent Ivory Coast, his country of birth.
It has been an standout season by Wan-Bissaka, and as simple as it might sound, what has been most eye-catching about the young defender’s performances has been his exceptionally effective defending. No one across Europe’s top-five leagues has made as many tackles as Wan-Bissaka (109), and better still is the remarkably few times an opponent has dribbled past him: while the rest of Europe’s top tacklers have been passed around 30 or 40 times this season, across his 27 matches facing some of the most skilful forwards in the world, Wan-Bissaka has been beaten only seven times.
It is these qualities which have propelled this unassuming player into the sights of Europe’s biggest clubs. In the modern age where defending starts with pressing, interceptions and the devious scuttling of counter-attacks, one-on-one resistance feels like something of a lost art. Ask any of his team-mates, and it is this gift for pickpocketing opponents that will one day carry Wan-Bissaka far beyond the confines of Croydon.
“Defending-wise you would probably take it for granted you could go by him in training, and you could never get by him,” says Palace midfielder James McArthur, with a hint of exasperation in his voice. “How far he’s come is incredible, and he’s the same boy, exact same. So down to earth, works so hard on the training field, listens to you if you tell him something. So I think with the temperament, the character, the ability that he’s got, he can go – which is probably our downfall – to the very, very top.”
Those who have helped him flourish at Palace since he joined aged 11 all say similar things. He was very skinny and very quiet. He was technically solid although he never stood out from his peers until he reached under-16s football. But what he had in abundance was a silent steel, a competitive spirit burning inside which continues to fuel his fierce determination not to be beaten, especially when up against the best players in the league.
First-team coach Kevin Keen was one of the first to spot it. Keen asked the teenage Wan-Bissaka – back then a steady wide midfielder – to fill in at right-back during a first-team training session. He impressed, and the next week Keen invited him back. This time he was marking Zaha, and the way he shut down one of the Premier League’s most talented wingers left an indelible mark on everyone at the session – not least Zaha.
“I was kind of shocked at how good he was when I played against him,” recalls Zaha in a documentary on Palace TV. “You may go past him but he always manages to get a last-ditch tackle in. He’s just so good at defending.”
McArthur remembers that first impression too. “It was amazing. He was a winger and then he’s come in and the manager’s changed him to start right-back. At the time he was very good in training but you wouldn’t say ‘wow, this boy is amazing’. But very down to earth, very, very good defender which you can see. Even Wilf couldn’t get by him. And because he wasn’t with us all the time it was one of those ones where every day that he trained, you started noticing more and more and more and more.”
His rapid progress makes it all the more surprising that he is still yet to be involved with England’s senior squad. Perhaps Southgate values the loyalty of players like Kieran Tripper, who performed so well for him in Russia, and wants to nurture those relationships he has already built. Certainly he would be hard pushed to justify Wan-Bissaka’s exclusion purely on form.
Perhaps he has fallen short because he doesn’t have the platform of a top-six club; you suspect Palace can only keep him from their clutches for so long. As for DR Congo, it is a waiting game. “We will be ready for him to join us if he decides [to],” Ibenge says. “I hope he makes a good choice.”
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