Manchester United’s lethal counter-attacking football in the opening 30 minutes of the Manchester derby was a flashback to Sir Alex Ferguson’s days in charge of the club.
United fans have witnessed few better first-halves since the Scotsman retired in 2013, but they certainly haven’t been treated to a more influential performance from a right-back since Gary Neville hung up his boots two years prior.
Although United’s attackers faded slightly after the break, Aaron Wan-Bissaka was majestic throughout – he was pitted against one of the best players in the Premier League in Raheem Sterling, and came out on top.
It was evident from the opening exchanges that the battle between Wan-Bissaka and Sterling would be a fascinating one. The Manchester City winger is one of the most difficult players in world football to stop one-on-one, while United’s £50million summer signing simply ‘loves to defend’, as he so often states.
Wan-Bissaka was equal to everything Sterling tried in the first-half, and as the game wore on, his recoveries, blocks and sliding tackles on his fellow Englishman only became more frequent and more crucial, as City piled on the pressure in pursuit of a comeback.
Across the course of 90 minutes, Wan-Bissaka won a phenomenal seven duels, alongside seven clearances, five tackles, and two interceptions.
The former Crystal Palace man also made three blocks during a masterclass in defending, one of which came after Sterling seemingly evaded his attentions for the first time.
The City wide-man drove inside onto his right-foot – evidently realising that beating Wan-Bissaka on the outside was an impossibility – and jinked his way into a shooting position.
But such was the tenacity and desire from Wan-Bissaka, he pursued his opponent right the way across the box and stretched a left-foot out to poke the ball away for a corner.
There was a half-hearted penalty appeal from Sterling, but he ultimately looked a beaten man – he simply could not find a way past United’s right-back.
An appreciation tweet for Aaron Wan-Bissaka once again pic.twitter.com/QXk2ONoOD2
— Tяυsτ №¹-Yahya™ (@RealistYahz) December 8, 2019
Wan-Bissaka has been excellent all season, but his performance against City was at the world-class level that is demanded at Old Trafford, and that has been absent on the right-hand side of United’s defence since Neville’s retirement in 2011.
There are fond memories of Rafael da Silva at United – the Brazilian became somewhat a cult hero during his time at the club, winning the hearts of supporters with his battling displays and attacking skill.
But he never quite had enough natural ability as a defender to really make the position his own in the long run, and was ultimately sold.
Antonio Valencia was another fans favourite, but he was only moved to right-back at the tail end of his career. Although the Ecuadorian played some terrific games in defence for United, he always looked like a winger playing full-back, and was too old to be a long-term solution.
Players like Matteo Darmian have joined the club, but failed to reach the sky-high standards set by Neville, while centre-backs Phil Jones and Chris Smalling have looked awkward when asked to play out of position.
But finally, almost a decade since Neville’s retirement, it seems United finally have found his replacement.
If Wan-Bissaka can play as consistently as he has done so far this campaign, and produce yet more magisterial displays in the biggest games in the future, United could quite easily go a decade without needing to look for a right-back.
Sterling’s stomach, along with every other winger’s in the Premier League, will be churning at the thought of facing Wan-Bissaka season upon season.
And at just 22 he is far from reaching his potential, yet he is arguably the best defensive right-back in world football.
It has been a long time since United fans could assuredly say one of their outfield players is world-class, but Wan-Bissaka could be the first of many that earn that label in the coming months.