Man Utd has a tradition of giving youth a chance – sometimes out of necessity others as reward. Every time the squad has been short on fit attacking players or full backs, all eyes turn to the U23’s. Finding a void for young centre backs to fill, however, has been more difficult.
One of the most promising young players in recent years has been Axel Tuanzebe, a centre back by trade. When he was loaned to Aston Villa for the 2018/2019 season it seemed like a step forward. Steve Bruce was in charge and there was a feeling that an ex player of the club would make sure to look after someone he had been loaned. Unfortunately, however, Bruce decided to play him at full back and it was great that he was getting minutes under his belt but not in his preferred position.
Thankfully for Tuanzebe this changed soon after when Dean Smith, a centre back himself in his playing days, replaced Bruce as Manager in October 2018. Axel was then installed as first choice centre back – a decision that not only benefited Villa but also Axel and in turn, United. Playing over 30 games in the season, winning promotion and gaining valuable experience had him return to United with a new found confidence.
A new contract was quickly offered and signed to reward his progress and also to show him that he certainly has a future at the club. It’s clear to see that he has jumped ahead of Smalling, Jones and Rojo. He has the physique, pace, power and athleticism to excel. He shows great maturity both on and off the pitch and has now captained every age group that he has played with since joining United. He is comfortable with the ball at his feet to play out from the back – a key trait that Ole likes to see in his defenders.
Having said that, he is by no means the finished article. His misplaced pass against Arsenal led to their equalising goal. His decision to attempt that pass inside rather than play it back to Maguire directly behind him just highlights the need for his decision making to improve but this will come with time and games.
Honesty of effort, desire and application is there to see, his focus not collapsing due to that misplaced pass and his clear technical ability has endeared him to the United Faithful. His name can be heard from the stands throughout most games and Lindelof is certainly looking over his shoulder knowing any poor performance could result in him losing his place to the 21-year-old.
Tuanzebe is reaping just rewards because when the stands are singing “Tuanzebe diddy-dum diddy-doo” he absolutely does.