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Axel Tuanzebe: Profiling the leading prospect in a generation of promising Manchester United talent

When Jose Mourinho joined Manchester United, he proclaimed his determination to promote aspiring footballers from the academy during his first press conference as manager. First on his list was Axel Tuanzebe, a defender who has caught the eye in United’s youth system for a few years and looks set to become one of the best academy graduates of this generation.

Tuanzebe became the only youth player to debut in United’s pre-season tour, as he was given 10 minutes in Mourinho’s first United match against Wigan. The subsequent press conference saw Mourinho detail his impression of the young defender for whom he had only the highest of praises.

“You can play 90 minutes or one minute, sometimes one minute is enough. With Axel, 10 minutes is enough. I only needed 10 minutes to know his potential, you can see it immediately.”

Tuanzebe’s second performance and full debut for United came in the FA Cup, also against Wigan, where he was given 22 minutes to showcase his ability. Strangely enough, the young centre-back debuted at right-back, a position unfamiliar to him. Still, he impressed with his composure on the ball and ability to pass in tight situations.

After United’s Premier League campaign became second priority to the Europa League, Tuanzebe was deployed as a right-back against Arsenal, where he was United’s standout player in a dire 2-0 loss. The young defender outplayed left-winger Alexis Sanchez, who was nominated for player of the season, despite being out of position and completely new to the Premier League.

The United reserves player of the year continued to surprise viewers, playing defensive midfield in his next three matches. In the first two, he played in a double-pivot with Michael Carrick, but his real opportunity to impress came in the final Premier League game of the season, against Crystal Palace, where he played in a single pivot behind Scott McTominay and Paul Pogba in a 4-3-3 formation.

Josh Harrop stole the show with his dazzling goal, but Tuanzebe was arguably the best player on the pitch that day in defensive midfield. His distribution of the ball was extremely quick and made Michael Carrick’s late-season form look amateur; moving the ball around with simple passes, he completely dominated Crystal Palace, dictating the tempo for one of United’s best performances of the season and making unbelievable numbers.

Tuanzebe’s nine defensive actions included three tackles, two interceptions, and four clearances. A defender by trade, that may be expected, but consider this- Tuanzebe completed every single one of his 63 passes. One. Hundred. Percent. He wasn’t dispossessed for the entire match either.

This perfectly highlights the defender’s strengths- complete composure, excellent decision-making, fluidity on the ball comparable to the best defenders in the world, and tempo-setting from the back. From the offset, Tuanzebe capitalized on his opportunity and produced two world class performances in positions relatively unfamiliar to him.

Tuanzebe is well-rounded; physically dominant but technically flawless, almost completely bereft of weakness. The keenest of viewers have noted a potential struggle in the air, though Sam Tighe of Bleacher Report believes otherwise.

Even a potential weakness in the air would become a relative strength if Tuanzebe became a midfielder. While he has played as a defender for his entire (young) career, converting Tuanzebe to midfield would be sensible for a multitude of reasons.

Firstly, at the base of midfield, he could tactically alter United’s formation by dropping between the central defenders and changing the formation from 4-3-3 to 3-4-3. This change would allow the fullbacks to provide the natural width that United lacked with extremely inverted wingers last season. Tuanzebe’s pass selection would make him the awaited heir to Michael Carrick in many ways, but his experience as a defender could also help him become an even better midfielder than the greatly undervalued Englishman.

Most importantly, though, playing as a defensive midfielder would give Tuanzebe more opportunities on the pitch. United could have Victor Lindelof, Eric Bailly, Daley Blind, Marcos Rojo, Phil Jones, and Chris Smalling all competing for places in the defence next season. In midfield, however, behind Ander Herrera and Paul Pogba in the pecking order, there are no established central midfielders outside Carrick, who turns 36 this year. Tuanzebe’s presence would help convert Fellaini into an exclusively attacking midfielder, which would be extremely beneficial for United in the long-term.

Announcing himself onto the scene with the performances he produced, Tuanzebe needs to be given a chance early next season. Mourinho should be eager to test him out if only to aid his youth objectives. Tuanzebe’s performances were standout to a degree where it would be disheartening for other young players at the club not to see him rewarded with minutes next season.

It has been clear for a year now that Tuanzebe leads the way for United youth, and to say he deserves a place in the first team squad would be an understatement. Tuanzebe, a quick, statured young defender with few weaknesses and excellent footballing ability, could become the next best defender, or even midfielder, for Manchester United. The only obstacle left is putting him on the pitch.

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