The Hard Tackle takes a look at the future prospects of Manchester United defender Axel Tuanzebe, who is a summer transfer target for Aston Villa.
Four years. That’s how long it has been since Axel Tuanzebe made his first-team debut for Manchester United. Appearing as a substitute in a 4-0 win over Wigan Athletic in the FA Cup at Old Trafford, the then 19-year-old would have hoped that the occasion would have marked the start for a productive run in the senior side.
Fast forward to 2021, though, and Tuanzebe has managed only 33 appearances for the Red Devils. During this time, Mason Greenwood made his first-team breakthrough and is one shy of his 100th cap for the club. Brandon Williams broke into the senior team and is three short of 50 appearances. Jose Mourinho, the man who handed Tuanzebe his debut at Manchester United, has been sacked from two jobs.
Tuanzebe, however, continues to wait for his opportunity to make the transition from a prospect to a first-team regular. Since making his debut, the 23-year-old has had two loan spells, both at Aston Villa, first in the second half of the 2017/18 campaign followed by the entire 2018/19 term. It is telling that he has more appearances for the Villans than he has for Manchester United.
So, what has gone wrong for the 23-year-old, one might wonder. Tuanzebe, largely regarded as a future mainstay in the club’s defence when he broke through, has had nagging injury problems that have held him back over the past couple of seasons at Old Trafford. As per data from Transfermarkt.com, the defender has missed as many as 47 games due to various injury problems since 2019/10.
Add to it, manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer hasn’t been open to rotating his centre-back options as much as he does in some other positions. Indeed, Harry Maguire, since arriving at the club in 2019, has played every single minute of football in 71 Premier League games in a row for Manchester United, matching a record set by legend Gary Pallister.
71 – Harry Maguire hasn't missed a single minute of @ManUtd's last 71 Premier League matches, equalling Gary Pallister's club record in the competition among outfield players (Nov 1993-May 1995). Everpresent.
— OptaJoe (@OptaJoe) April 25, 2021
Injuries and Solskjaer’s lacking propensity to rotate at centre-back have meant Tuanzebe has had to make do with a cup appearance here and there, even playing out of position as a full-back at times. However, he has never really gotten a regular run in the side till date.
And as we approach the summer transfer window, the 23-year-old could be set for a fresh opportunity to kickstart his career. Aston Villa, who have already had Tuanzebe on loan for eighteen months in the past, could launch an attempt to sign him up this summer. The Hard Tackle assesses if such a deal would be beneficial for all parties involved.
Manchester United: Keep, Loan or Sell Tuanzebe?
It is no secret that Tuanzebe, despite his lack of game-time and injury problems, continues to be held in the highest of regards at Manchester United. It’s not for nothing that Ole Gunnar Solskjaer handed the youngster the captain’s armband in the League Cup tie against Rochdale last season, despite the likes of Paul Pogba and Sergio Romero being on the pitch.
The 23-year-old is seen as a future captain by Solskjaer and the backroom staff and the fact that he has led the team at every single age level he has played at is a testament to his leadership. “Axel is a captain in the making, he’s a leader. We know we can give it to Sergio and we can give it to Paul, that’s no problem and they’ve been captains before. It’s just a way of telling him that we trust him,” Solskjaer had said after the game.
— Stretford Paddock FC (@SPaddockFC) September 26, 2019
Throw in the versatility – Tuanzebe has filled in at right-back, left-back and even as a defensive midfielder at various points in his short Manchester United career – and the fact that he is just 23 years old and still has his entire career left in front of him means it would be unwise of the Red Devils cashing in on him as of yet.
There is a case to be made for Manchester United to keep him at the club this season and not loan him out either. His presence would mean that the club will not have to shell money on signing another central defender while he would provide cover on the right side for Aaron Wan-Bissaka as well. However, given how the past couple of seasons have gone for him, it is important that he is able to play regularly in order to get his rhythm back.
And with Manchester United seemingly intent on recruiting another top-quality centre-half, Tuanzebe would be pushed further down the pecking order, meaning he will yet again be relegated to bench-warming duties. Another loan spell should, thus, be the way to go about things for Manchester United.
Tuanzebe’s chance to get his career back on track
As iterated earlier, Tuanzebe’s development has stalled and for him to get out of this rut and continue his progress to develop into the star that Manchester United are hoping he becomes, the 23-year-old needs to be playing regularly. So, from the player’s perspective an exit from Old Trafford makes a lot of sense.
2277 de Gea
402 Van de Beek
150 Tuanzebe pic.twitter.com/aDBFOqEuVS
— UtdArena (@utdarena) April 27, 2021
That being said, a transfer to Aston Villa would be something that might prove beneficial for the Englishman. It is a club that he is familiar with; he will be playing for a manager who worked with during the 2018/19 campaign and helped the Villans earn promotion back to the top-flight. While he would still be competing with Ezri Konsa and Tyrone Mings for a starting berth, the chances of him playing regularly are far better than they are at United.
But, the Englishman should consider leaving United on another temporary spell rather than sealing a permanent exit. For any player, making it at his boyhood club is the dream. And Tuanzebe has seen from close quarters what Dean Henderson has achieved this season. Three solid loan seasons away and he has been able to displace David de Gea as the club’s preferred goalkeeper in the Premier League.
A good campaign away at Villa Park, renewed and reinvigorated, there is no reason why Tuanzebe too could follow a similar trajectory as Henderson and become a mainstay at the heart of the Manchester United defence.
Aston Villa: Permanent deal or another temporary arrangement?
Looking at this from Aston Villa’s view, they will need a new defender given that Bjorn Engels is not part of the manager’s plans and is set to be sold, leaving them with just Konsa, Mings and Kortney Hause as options. Tuanzebe, for the Midlands’ club is a safe option, a tried and tested player, who has been at the club and one the coaching staff know all about.
If we can get Axel Tuanzebe on a permanent for as little as 7 million in today’s market, I would snap your hands off. He knows what it means to play for Aston Villa and suits our system #avfc pic.twitter.com/jTZsTq4ZsE
— Finley (@Finleydb10) May 1, 2021
At the same time, Tuanzebe has hardly played on a regular basis since his loan spell away at the Villa Park and has had major injury problems that have kept him sidelined for extended periods. So, a permanent transfer could come with a risk attached.
As a result, a temporary stint could be the best way forward for Dean Smith & co. as well. That way, they will be able to get a closer look at Tuanzebe, assess his fitness and progression over the length of a season before splashing the cash on the defender’s signing.
It is clear that Tuanzebe needs to be playing regularly if he is to kick-start his development, but game-time is unlikely to be forthcoming at Manchester United. At the same time, the club still rate him highly and see him as a future captain. So, a loan spell away at Aston Villa would be the best course of action for all parties involved.
The 23-year-old will get regular game-time at a club where he is trusted and has done well in the past. And a good season could either lead to him returning to Manchester United with a chance to earn a spot in the first XI or a permanent transfer to Villa, who will have gotten a first-hand assessment on the player before making any serious investment.