Gary Neville didn’t feel the need to come up for air once he dived in and got into the flow of his robust defence of Aaron Wan-Bissaka.
It doesn’t take much to get Neville exercised, so when it was suggested that Manchester United’s £50 million right-back needs to improve in the attacking third of the pitch – after a solid debut campaign – the man who occupied that same space at Old Trafford for the guts of 18 seasons grimaced on the other end of the Zoom call.
“You say that, but…” Neville began, pausing for the only time as he went on to deliver an almost 600-word assessment of Wan-Bissaka’s performances, and his expectations for the season ahead.
It was an impassioned monologue which, had he delivered it as part of his duties on Sky Sports, would be primed for a viral video on social media.
Neville insisted that he is not interested in comparisons between Wan-Bissaka and Liverpool’s Trent Alexander-Arnold, or Manchester City’s Kyle Walker, and sees no basis in measuring his attacking ability against any of the other full-backs who continue to redefine what is expected in the final third of the pitch.
“Aaron Wan-Bissaka is a fantastic defensive right-back and there are teams in the past who have won in different ways,” Neville says.
“The idea that because Trent Alexander-Arnold and Kyle Walker are two of the most outstanding attacking full-backs in Europe, that this means that Manchester United have to have one of the most outstanding attacking full-backs in Europe is not the case.
“I’ve seen [Branislav] Ivanovic and [Cesar] Azpilicueta be successful in the Premier League over the past five, 10 years and they have been very different full-backs to the ones I’ve mentioned. There is more than one way to win a football match.
“So, the idea that he really has to be different…”
Neville was in no mood to stop there but, before returning to his soliloquy, some context is required for the comparisons between Wan-Bissaka and his peers.
United begin their Premier League campaign today at home to Crystal Palace – the club he left when Ole Gunnar Solskjaer came calling in the summer of 2019 – and the expectation for most is that the 22-year-old must offer more than simply leading the defensive charts.
With 129 tackles and 66 interceptions he can boast impressive numbers, but that doesn’t tell the full story.
As last season wore on, it became clear that opponents actively tried to encourage United’s build-up play in the direction of Wan-Bissaka, increasingly confident that he could be dispossessed under pressure or was not capable of causing sufficient harm in possession.
His four assists were equal to that of Walker – although the City man made six fewer Premier League appearances last season – yet Alexander-Arnold and his Liverpool teammate Andy Robertson were way out in front with 13 and 12 respectively.
Everton’s Lucas Digne (seven) and Chelsea’s Azpilicueta (six) made more of an impact and, while he set up more goals than Spurs’ new signing Matt Doherty and Chelsea new boy Ben Chilwell (both three), the former scored four times while the latter struck on three occasions.
“My view on it with Aaron Wan-Bissaka is that he should focus on his defending and become a brilliant Manchester United full-back defensively, who keeps clean sheets.
“That’s number one, and he should focus on that,” Neville adds, citing the one area for improvement he does feel is necessary.
“The only other thing that I think he should do is try and create a relationship with his right winger whereby he can serve that player well and he can serve his central midfielder player well.
“What I mean is roll passes at the right weight, to the right side of the player’s feet so that the attack can start.
“Maybe then the other things, like the overlap he may produce to open space for people, is something that he could add. But the idea that you are going to make Aaron Wan-Bissaka into Trent Alexander-Arnold or Kyle Walker is never going to happen.
“So let’s not concentrate on that, let’s concentrate on how he can support Manchester United becoming a winning team, which is going to be in a different way to how those teams are doing it.
“Manchester United have invested £50 million in him, so rather than try and change him, they have to work with what he does.
“My view would be, the times I have seen Aaron Wan-Bissaka, he gets left isolated on the ball in what’s a big pitch at Old Trafford.”
The partnership between Neville and David Beckham on the right wing was a hallmark of Alex Ferguson’s second great United team of the 1990s (Martin Rickett/PA)
The partnership between Neville and David Beckham on the right wing was a hallmark of Alex Ferguson’s second great United team of the 1990s, when the Class of ’92 was blooded after Blackburn Rovers were crowned champions on the back of successive titles heading to Old Trafford in ’93 and ’94.
“Aaron Wan-Bissaka needs that option in front of him to his right, inside to left and a diagonal one into his striker,” Neville feels.
“If he’s got those three options that I always used to have, whether it was Beckham, Keane or Yorke, or whether it would be Carrick, Ronaldo and Rooney, I always had those three options.
“I knew where they were and I was feeding it into them. I’m serving the attack. It’s a bit of an old-fashioned approach because nowadays full-backs are expected to be wingers, score goals, set up goals, take free-kicks and penalties, well this is a little bit of a throwback.
“This is a defensive full-back who is very different and I don’t think we have to try and say he needs to be something different.
“He’s an outstanding defensive right-back, he’s a better defender than some of the attacking full-backs, work on that. Maybe Manchester United’s next signing is a left-back, would mean a real attacking left-back who would do something similar to Andy Robertson and Alexander-Arnold.
“Aaron Wan-Bissaka could potentially be part of a back three almost, narrows in a little bit. For me, it’s not about what he needs to do in an offensive manner, just polish up serving into the forward players to start the attack, that’s the only thing I would ask of him.”
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