He’s been on loan to Aston Villa for the past 2 seasons, but now Manchester United defender Axel Tuanzebe is ready to return to Old Trafford and make his mark on the first team, to prove he has the potential to be the centre-back that United boss Jose Mourinho craves.
The England U21 international has claimed a regular spot in Aston Villa’s back four over the past eight months and has used the platform to demonstrate why Mourinho holds him in high regard, that he can add much needed reinforcement to United’s defence.
Regarded by many to be the most exciting prospect on the United books, at the start of the season many fans believed Tuanzebe should be part of the future squad and given the opportunities to play. They were heavily disappointed when, in August, he was loaned to Aston Villa again to play under ex-United player Steve Bruce.
But what makes Axel Tuanzebe so special? Why is he the centre-back United are lacking?
Born in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Tuanzebe arrived in England aged 7 and quickly made an impact on The Red Devils, joining United’s Academy less than 1 year later. Since then, he has made eight senior appearances – a limited number of opportunities to make an impact, however he has impressed both fans and club every time.
2017/18 was a tough season. From the start to January, he was given limited game time, after which he moved to Villa where he was only able to make a handful of appearances due to injuries. However this season has been a complete turnaround. After a very impressive start, the Midland’s club want him for their full campaign. Match fit and hungry, he’s already played 1085 minutes in the Championship (out of a possible 1350), something that will undoubtedly please Mourinho. Racking up the game time and experience he needs to establish himself, he’ll be ready to return to United as a fortifiable titan.
Interestingly, although he is known for his versatility (able to play both centre-back and right-back), Tuanzebe feels differently about his strengths. He recently said ‘Centre-back is my natural position, it’s where I played for a long time. I feel more comfortable there.’ Perhaps Mourinho should bear that in mind when be brings him back into the squad. Regarding his return, he added ‘I’m sure there’s more to come. We’re still going through a phase of change and I’m sure when we fully cement that change you will see the best of me’.
The first couple of months at Villa were rocky. Villa weren’t picking up great results and Tuanzebe was switching between full-back to centre-back, then Steve Bruce was sacked and people questioned if he’d play as much. That didn’t last long. Dean Smith arrived along with ex-Chelsea and England captain John Terry, someone who knows exactly what Mourinho wants from his centre-backs. With Terry ready and willing to help him to improve his defending, it was like a gift had fallen on his lap.
And Tuanzebe knows it. Talking about Dean Smith’s tactical style, he said ‘You can see from his past clubs and how they play football. We're building out from the back, we take more time in creating chances, it's not as direct as we used to be. I've enjoyed his training sessions. His methods of play suit my type of play. It's the type of play we have back at United. It's all beneficial for me to carry it on from here back into my home club.’ It shows. Friday’s game against Bolton was his best in the claret shirt yet. The Villa Faithful raved with their comments. Music to the ears of Jose Mourinho and United fans: a player loved by rival clubs and fans, with consistent performances and with fantastic playing potential. Best of all, he’s only 20… and he’s theirs.