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Axel Tuanzebe: Should he be loaned out or remain at Manchester United?

Following his strong performance for the U23 side against Swansea this week, there have been suggestions that Axel Tuanzebe is too good for Premier League 2 level. Earmarked as one of the brightest prospects coming out of the Academy, Tuanzebe’s development will be important for Manchester United’s long-term future. Regular playing-time at a higher level is important for young players. As such, Jose Mourinho will have a tough decision to make before the transfer window closes – loan him out or open up minutes for Tuanzebe?

Best case scenario for Tuanzebe will be the latter. However, it is highly unlikely given the first team’s depth at centre-back. Eric Bailly appears to be Mourinho’s first choice at the moment, with Phil Jones the preferred partner. New-signing Victor Lindelof did not have the best debut in the UEFA Super Cup, but he will be given time to adjust in the Premier League and should get opportunities when Mourinho opts for a back-three or a ball-playing defender. Chris Smalling and left-back Daley Blind remain options as well. Lastly, Marcos Rojo, who recently returned to training, could be available for selection as early as December.

The Breakdown

With six established defenders ahead of him, none of whom are currently linked with a move away from Old Trafford, Tuanzebe will be left fighting for scraps in terms of playing time. Still, circumstances could change through the season as injuries and suspensions open up minutes. Tuanzebe could bide his time, continue to dominate in Premier League 2, and force his way into the manager’s first team plans with his performances. That would require lots of patience, from both the player and his fans, but he can take confidence in that he’s already caught the manager’s attention following his excellent performance against Arsenal last season.

In his four league starts thus far, Tuanzebe showed his versatility as a right-back and defensive midfielder. Ideally, he should be starting in central defense with Bailly. In a back-three, the duo will be joined by Lindelof to provide Mourinho with two ball-playing defenders (Lindelof and Tuanzebe) and an imposing tackler (Bailly) who has the speed to act as cover on defense and make interceptions. As a centre-back, he is physically strong, pacey, and a good reader of the game. He has great composure for his age, rarely diving into tackles and able to bring the ball up from defense or pick out a pass. He has also shown natural leadership qualities, captaining the U18 team as a first-year scholar and moving on to captain the Reserves side as an 18-year-old. The Reserves captain is clearly on track to follow the footsteps of legends Gary Neville and Rio Ferdinand as a defensive stalwart for the team.

Case for Tuanzebe to stay

An alternate, and more likely, scenario would be for Tuanzebe to play out of his favoured centre-back role. With the summer signing of Nemanja Matic, Tuanzebe’s first-team minutes this season could come solely as a right-back. Right-footed Matteo Darmian played majority of his pre-season minutes at left-back and is expected to keep that role this season, at least until the return of Luke Shaw from injury. With Timothy Fosu-Mensah currently out on loan, Tuanzebe’s main competition for minutes behind Antonio Valencia will be Lindelof. Unfortunately for Tuanzebe, Mourinho would prefer more balanced wide-players to the two natural defenders should he opt for a 3-5-1 formation. Training with the world-class players in the first team can aid Tuanzebe’s development, but it is no substitute for the constant grind of playing regular competitive football.

Case for Tuanzebe to be loaned out

Right now, Tuanzebe’s biggest weaknesses is his aerial ability and relative inexperience, both of which can be addressed through a successful loan spell. Youth team historian Tony Park claims that Tuanzebe to tends get caught in aerial challenges, especially in set-pieces. If Tuanzebe is able to get consistent first-team football in his favoured centre-back position, he should be able to overcome his aerial weakness as he gets more match experience. Moving to another Premier League club will be ideal, as it helps him get accustomed to the physicality and intensity of the league. A mid-table/bottom-half club looking to improve their defense, especially one with positive influences, should be considered. Possible destinations include Burnley (lost Michael Keane this summer), Newcastle United (under Rafa Benitez), or West Bromwich Albion (boast multiple veterans, including former Manchester United player Jonny Evans). Alternatively, a move overseas can be considered, where Tuanzebe will be exposed to a different playing style. If he’s lucky, he might have the opportunity to consistently play in a European competition.

Final thoughts

Axel Tuanzebe is a future first-team player, and the experience he will get on loan will be immensely valuable for his development. Manchester United cannot risk stunting his growth by not giving him enough match experience, as was the case for Adnan Januzaj. Nor can they risk him getting frustrated over lack of playing time and leave to thrive elsewhere, as was the case for Michael Keane. In the long run, playing regularly as a centre-back would be more beneficial for him instead of playing out-of-position as a back-up. Tuanzebe may struggle for regular first-team minutes this season, but come next year, a more experienced Tuanzebe can give Lindelof and company a run for their money. My verdict: Loan

Written by Justin Collera

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