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The wrong right-back? Aaron Wan-Bissaka's best qualities are what make him unsuited to Gareth Southgate's England

Aaron Wan-Bissaka, England and Manchester United
(Image credit: PA)

The official way to denote international affiliation has changed. It is no longer necessary to inform FIFA. Changing the flag on a social media profile is so much quicker and easier.

Some of that may not be true, but it is nevertheless notable that Aaron Wan-Bissaka’s decision to put the Congolese flag on his Instagram biography generated suggestions that he is changing his international allegiance. Or, as he played for both the Democratic Republic of Congo and England at Under-20 level, simply opting for the country he represented first.

Either way, he feels the uncapped anomaly in England’s golden generation of right-backs. Long so short of quality options that Glen Johnson was the only specialist in successive World Cup squads, England now have a surfeit. They could be forgiven for wishing a couple were left-footed left-backs because, along with wingers and centre-forwards, they have so many that some are surplus to requirements.

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Gareth Southgate has tried cramming all into a team and a squad: Kieran Trippier, Trent Alexander-Arnold and Kyle Walker all started Sunday’s win against Belgium, with Reece James coming off the bench. The merits of multiple right-backs may have been displayed when Alexander-Arnold and Trippier both played their parts in Mason Mount’s winner. In a way, though, the most instructive selection was James. Southgate was so keen to pick the Chelsea youngster, he brought him in when Raheem Sterling withdrew. And, while Brendan Rodgers occasionally fielded Sterling as a right wing-back for Liverpool, James is scarcely a like-for-like replacement. 

If it confirmed Wan-Bissaka’s place in the pecking order, it showed it is lower than most imagined: the presumption was that, at worst, the Manchester United man was fourth in line. There was a theory that, when Walker dropped out of the squad and became one of the country’s more prominent ‘Covidiots’, that the younger man was leapfrogging him to become the Manchester clubs’ strongest candidate. 

Evidently not. Walker’s 50th cap means he is now 50 ahead of Wan-Bissaka. The latter may be the Premier League’s king of tackling, the man who won the most in the division last season and who ranked only behind two hyperactive defensive midfielders the previous year, but his skillset has gone out of favour at a time when his form has tailed off.

Sevilla exposed him in the Europa League semi-final. It was relatively uncontroversial to brand him the best defensive right-back in the Premier League; suffice to say he did not look it in United’s 6-1 hammering by Tottenham, even if he was far from the only culprit in a shambles.

But Southgate’s reversion to a back three has emphasised different attributes. He may be looking to the flanks for creativity to compensate for a relative lack of it in the centre of midfield and his wing-backs are notable for their delivery from the touchline. Alexander-Arnold’s is famously good; no right-back in world football, arguably, is as good a crosser. Trippier’s set-pieces were a reason England reached the 2018 World Cup semi-final. James may be the best crosser at Stamford Bridge. A relatively old-fashioned right-back like Wan-Bissaka can feel a man out of time as well as a player out of favour.

Perhaps his pace, tackling skills and ability to defend one against one could equip him to play on the right of a back three, as Walker did in the World Cup and again on Sunday, but Southgate is yet to show any willingness to select him as such. It may nevertheless be his best chance for an England cap as well as 3-4-3 persists as the system. Because with the precocious Tariq Lamptey prospering as a buccaneering wing-back for Brighton, and seemingly becoming everyone’s new favourite player, Wan-Bissaka may not even be the premier right-back who is wanted by an African country in the England manager’s thinking. He looks the wrong right-back for Southgate.

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