Axel Tuanzebe has just returned from an impressive season in the Sky Bet Championship, helping Dean Smith’s side to regain promotion back to the Premier League.
While a lot of people, Ole Gunnar Solksjær included, have been impressed by Axel’s abilities, the defender’s development hasn’t been all rosy.
Having joined the United academy at the age of eight, Axel was part of the youth team that won the Milk Cup in 2013 and then again in 2014. He then went on to break into the first team in 2015 under Dutch manager, Louis van Gaal, winning the Jimmy Murphy Youth Player of the Year Award at the end of the 2014/2015 season.
But after that, his development hit a snag with the sacking of the former Bayern Munich manager and the subsequent hiring of Jose Mourinho, who is widely believed to have no trust in the youth.
Though the former Chelsea manager was full of praises about Axel, shortly after his first team debut in a friendly against Wigan Athletic in 2016, the Portuguese claiming that “just 10 minutes is enough to notice Axel’s potential,” Tuanzebe made just four appearances for the Red Devils that year.
However, they were impressive enough to earn him the Denzil Haroun Reserve Team Player of the Year award.
Axel was sent out on loan to Aston Villa midway in 17/18 but consistent injuries limited him to just five appearances at Villa Park which put his future at the Theatre of Dreams to even more doubt.
Alas, a seemingly promising career was on the verge of becoming a shadow.
Aston Villa took him back to the Championship in 2018/2019 but not until the arrival of Dean Smith did Axel’s career redeemed.
The manager was quick to notice his ability and he partnered him with Bournemouth loanee, Tyrone Mings, at the heart of defence, in a team that was energetic and ambitious.
Axel made 30 appearances for the Birmingham based club and while he garnered some impressive figures which include 84.5% pass accuracy and an average of 3.2 aerial duels won per match, his ability to stay clean is really eye-catching. Indeed, he committed just 20 fouls in those 30 games and did not receive a single card.
Dean Smith is a fan of the 21-year-old and is keen to take him back to Villa Park.
“If Ole wants to ring me,” said the Clarets’ boss few months into his time at Aston Villa, “I’ll give him an excellent report on Axel. He came here as a right back. But I always felt he had capabilities to be a really good centre half. He is proving that. He has really grown here.”
“He is showing an awful lot of composure,” furthered the 48-year-old. “His awareness has also got better, perhaps with experience of playing. He is quick, no questions about that.”
Manchester United’s defence is currently lacking the ruthlessness that was the backbone of the glory days. Steve Bruce, Jaap Stam and Nemanja Vidic are examples of defenders with the do-or-die mentality and were causes of serious headaches for even the deadliest attackers of those days.
While Axel Tuanzebe is still very young, he is in a better position than the likes of Marcos Rojo, Phil Jones and Chris Smalling to step up into the shoes of those mentioned Manchester United legends, and must be Ole’s first choice as Lindelof’s partner if the Reds pursuit of Leicester’s Harry Maguire fails to materialize.
So, is Axel Tuanzebe good enough to partner Victor Lindelof next season? His brilliant composure on the ball, strong aerial presence and intelligent decision making set him aside from the rest.
More so, he has just had a great season and must be brimming with confidence, which will help him on the road to becoming an icon at Old Trafford.