At the beginning of the 2019/20 season, Manchester United fans were excited to see what Academy graduate Axel Tuanzebe could bring to their defence after being promoted to the first team squad following on from an extremely impressive season on loan in the Championship at Aston Villa.
Since then, however, injuries and the signing of defenders ahead of him in the pecking order have meant that Tuanzebe has been unable to put a run of games together in a United shirt, leading to the now 24-year-old being sent on loan this season once again to Aston Villa, who are now in the Premier League, to get much needed playing time. So where does this leave the defender?
It is fair to say that over two seasons (2019/20 and 2020/21) Tuanzebe had more positive appearances in a United shirt than he did negative. His performance against Paris Saint-Germain in the Champions League last season stands out in memory, after almost 10 months on the side-lines through various injuries Tuanzebe’s first game back would be away from Old Trafford against one of the best players in the world, Kylian Mbappe.
However, the defender held his own and showed tremendous ability, after the game Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, the manager at the time, stated; ‘Axel’s a tremendous defender, a great leader. He’s come through the Academy, and we’ve known for years that he’s going to be a top player for us’, it felt like a real turning point in the defenders career.
However, the defender did not push on after this performance, only making 19 appearances across all competitions for United that season. During the season he only started four games in the league, with the partnership of Harry Maguire and Victor Lindelöf earning the trust of the manager. The season prior, 2019/20, the defender only made 11 appearances across all competitions for United in a season that was hampered by three separate injuries. This unfortunately meant that after his breakthrough season on loan, Tuanzebe’s career had stalled.
While there can be no doubt about the defender’s ability, it must be noted that, at present, there are four defenders ahead of him in the pecking order due to their ability and experience at the top level: Maguire, Raphael Varane, Lindelöf and Eric Bailly.
It could be argued that on his best form Tuanzebe is picked above Bailly and possibly Lindelöf due to his technical ability, however, he simply has not shown his consistency at the highest level to be considered an instant starter at a club like United. A decent season at fellow Premier League club Aston Villa may change that.
So far, Tuanzebe has only made nine appearances for Villa this season across all competitions. Out of 14 Premier League games this season, he has only started six, even more worryingly, since the dismissal of Dean Smith as manager on the 7 November, as reported by BBC Sport, Tuanzebe has not played a single minute for Aston Villa.
This could perhaps show that new manager Steven Gerrard is wanting to work with players that are not on loan as can sometimes be the case, or that he has fallen out of favour entirely.
United will be hoping that over the Christmas period Tuanzebe can play himself into favour with the new manager, as the main reason he is on loan at the club is to play regular minutes at the top level.
If he does not manage to do so, the club may think of recalling the defender back from loan and loaning him elsewhere or holding on to him as a back up option for new manager Ralf Rangnick, who may well give Tuanzebe more opportunities.
For now, however, it looks as though the defender has a tough time ahead of him under new management, which could possibly signal the beginning of the end for the Academy graduate at his boyhood club.
Fans will keep the faith that the prospect can break through to the first team as he is one of their own, however, at the age of 24, Tuanzebe and those around him need to decide what the best move is for the player, which may well be away from United for good.
Written by Jennifer McCord