It’s a developmental path followed by many defenders at the top level, to have started in a more attacking position before moving closer to their own goal as they progress.
Patrice Evra and Ashley Cole, for example, the two outstanding Premier League left-backs of their generation, both began their footballing lives as strikers, before switching to the wing and then moving into a deeper remit.
At Crystal Palace’s prolific academy, they certainly know how to identify and mould talented youngsters, so the decision of the club’s youth coaches to reimagine Aaron Wan-Bissaka as a right-back, having previously been a centre-forward, was bound to have its base in sound reason.
“It was always something you thought about with Aaron, because he was so disciplined defensively,” said Richard Shaw, coach of Palace’s under-23 side, speaking to Sky Sports.
“I coached him initially at under-16 level and then had him again at under-23s and he had a defensive mindset. He also had these long legs and made good recovery runs, so the ability to make the change was there.”
Now a regular starter in the Selhurst Park first team, with the only Premier League game he has missed this term coming by virtue of a suspension for a red card against Liverpool, Bissaka’s rapid assimilation to his defensive role has seen him become one of the hottest defensive prospects in Europe.
Breaking into the Palace senior side toward the tail end of last season, an injury crisis meant Wan-Bissaka was given a baptism of fire, facing Tottenham Hotspur, Manchester United and Chelsea in his first three outings. Although results didn’t go the Eagles’ way, the young defender impressed.
So much so, in fact, he was named Palace’s Player of the Month for March of last term, his first full month as a first-team regular, and he picked up the same award again in August.
What is most remarkable about Wan-Bissaka’s performances this season has been just how competent he is in his out-of-possession duties, despite being a latecomer to the art of defending.
The youngster currently ranks third among Premier League full-backs for interceptions per 90 minutes (2.42) and first for tackles per 90 (4.46).
His newfound defensive acumen has not come at the expense of his dampening his attacking abilities either. When it comes to successful dribbles per 90, he is the Premier League’s top-ranked full-back (2.17), his average for forward passes (21.06) ranks him eighth, and he is 11th for big chances created per 90 (0.25).
This isn’t to suggest the Palace star is the finished product already, however, as evidenced by the fact his adventurousness in the final third sees him dispossessed 1.4 times per 90, a higher average than 92 per cent of his positional peers.
All the signs are pointing to an incredibly bright future for Wan-Bisakka, though. Palace continue to struggle this term, languishing in 15th position with six defeats from nine games. But the 20-year-old right-back has stood out again and again, putting in solid defensive displays against some of the division’s most-gifted attackers.
As England manager Gareth Southgate continues to employ a policy of giving chances to young players, it surely won’t be long before the Croydon-born under-21 international makes his senior Three Lions bow.
Indeed, players with less top-level experience than him have already made their breakthrough; it is only the presence of Kieran Trippier and Kyle Walker – two of England’s best players, both right-backs – that is likely to stand in his way going forward.
Just as colleague Wilfried Zaha‘s development in recent seasons has seen him become one of the most coveted players in the country, soon too will Wan-Bissaka’s name begin to appear on the wish lists of Europe’s biggest clubs.
Displaying a maturity of attitude which has been abundant on the pitch, though, the young defender remains focused intently on helping Palace improve. “We need to bounce back and take the positives from today into the games coming up,” he said after a 2-0 defeat to Everton on October 22.
“I’m enjoying it and my target is to play more games.”