Necessity is the mother of all invention and, on February 24, during his pre-match team meeting Roy Hodgson had no choice but to unexpectedly read out the name of a player few outside Crystal Palace had heard of, to inform him he’d be making his Premier League debut the next day. Against Tottenham Hotspur.
Injuries to right-back mainstay Joel Ward and the versatile Martin Kelly meant on-loan Timothy Fosu-Mensah had to slot alongside James Tomkins at centre-back, leaving a gaping hole in the right of defence, one a talented but largely unheralded 20-year-old winger would fill with some distinction.
Aaron Wan-Bissaka has been with the Eagles since the age of 11. A student of Oasis Academy Shirley Park in Croydon, less than three miles from Selhurst Park, he has been carefully cultivated through their youth ranks but his immediate future heading into the 2017/18 season looked more likely to be on loan than starring for the first-team.
Admittedly, Frank de Boer had seen something and took him along with the full squad on the Asia Trophy in Hong Kong where he performed admirably against Liverpool and West Bromwich Albion at wing-back, a position he had begun to develop in for the Under-23s towards the back-end of last season.
However, what plans the Dutchman had for him were ripped up by his early dismissal in September and Wan-Bissaka returned to the development set-up.
It wasn’t until December 16 where his name was mentioned in first-team conversation again as Hodgson included him on the bench for their 3-0 victory at Leicester City, but the spectre of an ongoing relegation battle, with the intense financial penalty of falling out of the Premier League, means top-flight clubs are increasingly reticent to blood youth-team players.
As January approached, Wan-Bissaka was keen to push for a loan move to gain first-team experience only to be rejected by Hodgson who told him to stay in south London, bide his time and wait for the right opportunity.
Hodgson proved true to his word, albeit with his hand forced, and when Wan-Bissaka took to the field at Selhurst Park it produced a remarkable statistic as he became the first Palace academy product to make a first-team league start since Kyle De Silva (now of FC Eindhoven) in January 2012.
For a club that boasts Wilfried Zaha, Victor Moses, Nathaniel Clyne, John Salako, Ian Wright and Kenny Samson among its former academy alumni, it was a somewhat mystifying piece of trivia but early signs certainly indicate Wan-Bissaka has the tools to continue that proud lineage.
On debut, his immediate assignment was to go one-v-one with Érik Lamela but what soon emerged was a multi-faceted threat as Christian Eriksen and Dele Alli, and then substitutes Lucas Moura and Son Heung-Min, also operated through that channel.
He was certainly a busy boy, completing seven of eight tackles (more than anyone else on the field), while among Palace’s players only Patrick van Aanholt (62) had more touches than his 52.
Unsurprisingly Mauricio Pochettino had targeted Palace’s flanks and while Spurs emerged with a 1-0 victory, that a debutant has successfully competed against five international footballers, with their varying different attributes and skills, spoke volumes for Wan-Bissaka’s own technique but also his concentration.
Of course, it wasn’t perfect as he completed just six of 16 passes while failed to offer any real presence in the attacking third, as only nine of his 52 touches were past the half-way line. But that can be largely understood given the calibre of the opposition.
Further tests followed with Manchester United and Chelsea before the comparative sanctity of fellow relegation strugglers Huddersfield Town last weekend. In each game, however, Wan-Bissaka has looked increasingly equipped to hold down the right-back position.
Against United, he showed, or was given by his manager, a greater freedom to play on the front-foot with 19 of his 48 touches in the opposition half – a rise of 22 per cent on the Tottenham game; at Stamford Bridge, it was 30 of 67 – a further increase of five per cent; while at Huddersfield he got on the ball 90 times, more than any of his team-mates, with 36 touches in the Terriers’ half.
Understandably the Tottenham game was one of containment rather than creation, but it shows a definite sign that Hodgson is giving Wan-Bissaka the opportunity to adopt a more aggressive role; and the player himself increasingly having the confidence to attack.
But it’s his defensive numbers that deliver the most impressive reading. Granted, it’s only a very small sample size but his 2.5 interceptions per 90 minutes put him not too far off team-mate Yohan Cabaye, who is at the top of the Premier League rankings with 2.9, and his 1.8 blocks would also exceed Burnley’s James Tarkowski’s 1.6 who currently leads that statistical category for players who’ve featured in ten games or more.
His tackling accuracy has also been exemplary: seven out of eight vs Tottenham, two out of four against United, two out of two vs Chelsea and five out of five in the Huddersfield game – an overall completion rate 84 per cent, against three of the country’s top five sides. For a player who’s only really been a defensive player for less than a year it is mightily impressive.
Moving forward he’ll have to maintain these numbers as not only will opposition sides look to try and expose the young rookie but three of Palace’s regular four midfielders – Cabaye (2.4), Luka Milivojevic (1.7) and Andros Townsend (1.6) – lie in the Premier League’s top 20 most dribbled past players.
It’s Wan-Bissaka’s shirt to lose, though, and despite the return of Kelly to fitness, Fosu-Mensah’s availability and the expected return of Joel Ward next month, as the 20-year-old has shown little reason for Hodgson to move him back to the bench, with the Palace manager admitting he’s been ‘amazed‘ at his progress.
As Robert Warlow of the Croydon Advertiser explains: “The shirt is for others to try and claim back. He has looked composed at right-back and while he has got forward to support in attack, his performances defensively have been very impressive.
“He has made some vital challenges, interceptions and clearances, and although there are still things to work on, he has made the right impression so far.”
Certainly, Wan-Bissaka appears to have the character to hone and develop his game, those at the club speak of a calm and composed individual who wants to improve his game.
Warlow added: “He doesn’t seem to have let the praise he has receiving go to his head and deserves credit for that. He has simply got on with his job in a professional way and has said the right things in interviews, including focusing on the team and not himself.”
The FA have clearly been wise to his talents, calling him to the Under-20 set-up this month with Wan-Bissaka also eligible to play for DR Congo having represented the African nation at Under-20 level in 2015 – in an 8-0 loss to England.
In a season of sporadic, if few, genuine highlights, Wan-Bissaka has emerged as a major positive for Palace, not only in the short-term but also beyond and Ward and Kelly’s unfortunate injuries could prove to have been a happy accident for Hodgson at the end of the season.