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Spotlight: Aaron Wan-Bissaka

Crystal Palace’s academy product has rocketed to prominence over the last month. Should he be in your fantasy squad?

Aaron Wan-Bissaka - Crystal Palace - Premier League
Crystal Palace’s emerging young star is a home-grown talent: Aaron Wan-Bissaka joined the club’s academy at age 11.

Roy Hodgson’s head must have ached as he ran his eyes over his tattered side ahead of the February 25 clash with Tottenham. Missing through injury were no fewer than 12 of his first-team regulars, including defenders Martin Kelly, Joel Ward, Scott Dann, and Mamadou Sakho.

Hodgson’s solution for a makeshift back four was to move Timothy Fosu-Mensah from right back to center back, and to fill the right back slot with squad player Aaron Wan-Bissaka. Although it was the 20 year-old’s Premier League debut, he repaid his manager’s faith by playing with startling poise and maturity against such seasoned stars as Harry Kane, Son Heung-Min, Dele Alli, and Christian Eriksen.

His standout performance in the 0-1 defeat earned him another start the following week against Manchester United and Alexis Sanchez. This time he flat-out stole the show, earning Man-of-the-Match honors from many pundits. In his third consecutive start, this time against Eden Hazard and Chelsea, the youngster sparkled yet again, with teammate James Tompkins hailing him as “brilliant.” And AWB followed that by helping his team to a clean sheet victory in the trip to Huddersfield yesterday.

And unlike some players whose scintillating real-life play fails to translate into fantasy returns, AWB has been Fantrax gold. Against three of the league’s top five teams, and without the benefit of clean sheets, he posted scores of 7, 10, and 13 points. Against Huddersfield he was shown yellow and still put up 11 (but that did include a CS bonus). And all for the slim price of a single dollar.

Obviously, value like that catches the eye of the fantasy manager. But just who is Aaron Wan-Bissaka, and what are his fantasy prospects going forward?

Although even many Eagles fans hadn’t heard of AWB until he was handed the start against Tottenham, the London-born player of Congolese descent has been with the club since joining Palace’s academy at age 11. AWB spent most of his youth career as a midfielder before switching last year to wing back in the development squad. He then impressed first-team gaffer Frank de Boer enough to earn an invitation to join Palace’s preseason Hong Kong tour, where he saw some pitch time against Liverpool and West Brom in the Premier League Asia Trophy tournament.

Since then he has been confined to the periphery, occasionally included as bench cover in Palace’s EPL squad but never having his number called. By January, convinced that he had outgrown Palace’s U23 set-up, Wan-Bissaka asked to go out on loan in order to gain first-team experience. But like de Boer, Hodgson saw talent and potential in the young player and forced him to stay: “(I told him) to stay here and train with us because your chance might come here.” And on that fateful day 4 weeks ago against Tottenham, it finally did.

So what can we fantasy managers expect from Wan-Bissaka? A lot depends on whether he has nailed down his status as first-choice right back. Until a month ago, that position indisputably belonged to Joel Ward, who has more EPL appearances in an Eagles shirt than any other player in history. Timothy Fosu-Mensah was Ward’s cover and had been deputizing while Ward was injured; Wan-Bissaka only got his opportunity against Spurs because TFM had to be shifted centrally to cover injuries to James Tompkins and Martin Kelly.

Kelly and Tompkins subsequently recovered for the United game the next week, which would have freed TFM to return to his normal position except that TFM was ineligible to face his parent club. It would have been interesting to know what decision Hodgson would have made had he been offered the choice between TFM and AWB. But as it was, AWB was given the start by default, regardless of whether or not he would have gotten it anyway.

And that start was critical for AWB, since, as I mentioned, he was arguably Palace’s best player on the day. That performance prompted Hodgson to declare that “At the moment (AWB) has the shirt. It’s up to those getting fit to get the shirt back.” And indeed, AWB did keep TFM out of the starting lineups for the trips to Stamford Bridge and Kirklees Stadium.

But despite this, AWB’s status does present some risk to fantasy managers contemplating his acquisition. Joel Ward was still unavailable for the Chelsea and Huddersfield games, so although it is abundantly clear that AWB has leapfrogged TFM in the pecking order at right back, we still can’t know whether AWB has become first-choice over club-icon Ward. Ward wasn’t healthy enough to even make the bench against Huddersfield, but with two weeks to recover before Palace’s next game, he might return to fitness in time to win back his place in the S11.

The other potential downside to fantasy investment in Wan-Bissaka is that he is listed in Fantrax (NMA league) as a midfielder. Despite the fact that he scores well, I hesitate somewhat to grant one of my midfield spots — positions I normally want to fill with offensive talent — to someone who is playing as a defender. In four games, AWB has exactly zero goals, zero assists, and zero shots on goal. Although he has registered 3 accurate crosses, he accumulates most of his fantasy points the way a defender would: tackles, interceptions, and blocked shots. The bright side is that as a right back, he is eligible for clean sheet points in Fantrax, as we saw against Huddersfield.

But at the end of the day, points is points, and I don’t care how my fantasy players get them. AWB’s average of 10.25 points per game ranks him among Fantrax’s top 10 players, just above Christian Eriksen, who costs ten times more. And he’s consistent, home or away, and regardless of the strength of the opposition. Admittedly, AWB’s track record is only 4 games long, but he nonetheless makes a pretty persuasive fantasy case for himself based on value. If he is able to keep a healthy Joel Ward on the bench, he’ll be a strong fantasy option week in and week out.

Did AWB make your Fantrax side in the 4-match GW-31? What would you do with the cash if you brought him in for a more expensive player now? What do you think will happen when Ward is fit again? Please leave a comment below!