Going into the 2023/2024 season, Manchester United coach Erik ten Hag will have a few big decisions to make. With United’s squad having undergone a substantial replenishment since his arrival, last season, United are now in the enviable position of having two players competing for most outfield positions.
For the manager, this presents a dilemma – one that he’ll be happy to have – in choosing his best 11 on any given day. One of the main areas where he’ll have to do a lot of thinking is at right back, where Diogo Dalot and Aaron Wan Bissaka are practically tied as joint favourites for a starting position.
Arguably, Wan-Biassaka, having finished last season stronger, is currently ahead of his Portuguese colleague and should be the one getting the nod, when opening day rolls around.
This is a far cry from last season when he looked effectively frozen from the get-go, and to all intents and purposes appeared to be on his way out of the club.
A post-World Cup injury to Dalot, who himself had appeared destined for an exit following four underwhelming seasons (including a loan spell) as a Man United player, meant that Wan-Bissaka had an opportunity to step back in from the cold; one he grasped with both hands and hasn’t let go of since.
The questions Ten Hag will need to answer aren’t necessarily over whether either player is good enough to start for his Manchester United team.
Despite having different areas of strength, both players bring qualities that make them useful. Wan-Bissaka is an outstanding right-back defensively, and Dalot is more refined in his use of the ball.
The question Ten Hag will have to answer is which player contributes more to making the team’s output greater than the sum of all its parts.
Given that the Dutchman is fanatical about playing out from the back and likes his full-backs to invert into midfield when United have the ball, Dalot may appear to be the logical choice.
When compared side by side, Dalot appears superior in passing and more comfortable in possession. For example, an analysis of their respective passing contributions last season shows that Dalot makes more key passes, with 1.1 to Wan-Bissaka’s 0.8. He is also more reliable when it comes to delivery of the final ball, with two assists to Wan-Bissaka’s nil.
Additionally, Dalot makes 2.7 long passes to Wan-Bissaka’s 0.9 and plays significantly more passes at 45.7 to Wan-Bissaka’s 37.1. Clearly, Dalot is the better passer. (Stats taken from Whoscored.com).
That said, Wan-Bissaka, without being the most inventive passer, is reasonably tidy on the ball to a high enough level. He won’t likely be as good as Dalot at interpreting the inverted right-back role, but he won’t be a disaster either.
On the other hand, there is an argument to be made for how Wan-Bissaka might bring unique, less empirical qualities that affect other phases of play.
Wan-Bissaka is incredible at one-on-one defending, which might allow his winger – usually Antony – more leeway to take up and hold attacking positions. He has also formed a tidy partnership with Antony, which Ten Hag might be reluctant to disrupt.
Wan-Bissaka is a willing runner and frequently provides Antony with passing options that help relieve the Brazilian when under pressure.
With United likely to bring in an additional midfielder and possibly a striker – both Sofyan Amrabat and Rasmus Hojlund are looking increasingly Old Trafford-bound – in addition to the arrivals of Mason Mount and Andre Onana, some continuity will help stabilize the team while the new players get settled.
In the long term, Erik ten Hag should look to reward players based on their performances so his first-choice right-back pick isn’t necessarily something he needs to have cast in stone.
Once the season has gotten started in earnest, the Dutchman will have a much better idea of who he’ll want at right back over the course of the season. Before then, he would be wise to stick with Wan-Bissaka.