FootballPremier League

Is Axel Tuanzebe the cure for Manchester United’s defensive ills?

June 2, 2019

MANCHESTER United used twenty different defensive combinations last season, 15 in the first 21 league games. Is it any wonder they spent only one week in the top four all season, any wonder why Newcastle United, who finished 13th, had a better defence than Manchester United? As did Crystal Palace, Leicester, Everton, Wolves and every team above United.

Eleven different players played in defence: Ashley Young, Smalling, Phil Jones, Luke Shaw, Diogo Dalot, Nemanja Matic, Bailly, Antonio Valencia, Scott McTominay, Rojo and Lindelof.

Though not without blame, David de Gea started to suffer from the instability in front of him. The best teams have stable defences, as United proved many times. Liverpool and Manchester conceded less than half the goals United let in.

So, what’s the solution? A settled right back is vital. At left back, Luke Shaw won the player of the year competition in a team short of players of the year. He’s not the best left back in the world and his performances dipped like all those around him, but United have bigger issues than thinking about replacing him after his best season at the club.

Central defence is a worry, a collection of injury prone talents who can be world-beaters on their day but lack the required fitness and consistency.

Ole Solskjaer was initially happy with the upturn in form of his defenders, but not towards the end of the season.

United tried to sign Harry Maguire before the start of this season and then settled for what they had. Mourinho wanted a ball playing centre half. He wanted Toby Alderweireld, McGuire or Jerome Boateng. United also had bids rejected for Napoli’s Kalidou Koulibaly.

Victor Lindelof played more games than any central defender, starting 39 in total. Chris Smalling started 34 and was sub in 12 more. Phil Jones started 20, half the games Shaw started. Eric Bailly started 14, Marcos Rojo just three.

This must change. It’s inconceivable to think that Rojo has a future, but we’ve been here before with him and he has a vast contract for two more years. Bailly fell well out of favour with Mourinho but has another year left.

Jones and Smalling will get abuse off United fans until the day they leave the club, no matter how well they play. None of this is inspiring, but then we’re looking at United through a negative lens after a wretched end to the season.

Let’s try and be positive. United are interested in strengthening the central defensive position and Matthijs Di Ligt could do that. The confident young Dutchman is relaxed about the whole situation. He’s happy to stay and progress at Ajax, happy to move. His trust is in his agent. Barça feel that he wants to play for them and have long been led to believe that, but they know other clubs could pay more. He’d be a fine signing, a leader at 19, but United fans have become used to disappointment and few fans expect it.

There are high hopes for Axel Tuanzebe, the man who has captained United at every age group apart from the first team. He’s an intelligent (he got a few A*s in his GCSEs) 21 year old who moved to Rochdale, Greater Manchester, aged 4, since his parents wanted a better life for him than they had in DR Congo. He’s level-headed and prefers concentrating on his football to any form of social media.

He’s been at Aston Villa for the last two seasons on loan, with this season being far better for him and his team than last, despite missing over three months to a metatarsal fracture. Tuanzebe was excellent in Monday’s play-off win against Derby County.

If he goes back to Villa then he’ll be a Premier League footballer next season, but United want to give him a chance first – and that means playing pre-season in Australia, Singapore, China, Norway and Wales. Whatever, he needs to be playing regularly.

Academy boss Nicky Butt has long rated him highly and Butt has been a big influence on Tuanzebe.

“He’s helped me a lot,” Tuanzebe told me at the start of this season. “You are shielded from men’s football as a youngster; it’s more brutal and you have to fight for yourself. You realise that some people are fighting because that’s all they have. If they fail in this they have nothing left. They give 100% in every game. They’re fighting to pay their mortgage, for their win bonus to buy something which is really important to them. Nicky explained all this to me and it really opened my eyes. He helped convert me into the young man that I am becoming now and made me realise that you have to take every game completely seriously as you continue your development. You don’t know who is watching, either.”

At Villa, where Tyrone Mings received more attention, Tuanzebe learned much from former central defender Steve Bruce and John Terry.

“Just watching John Terry and seeing how he applied himself,” he said. “He always gave me little pointers, be it on my playing style or how to be around people or carry yourself. John Terry never took more than three touches in training. The ball moved quickly with him. There were no big timers at Villa, but a lot of humble players.”

The words are refreshing and give hope. He’s fast, strong, composed and good on the ball, but he’ll be judged by his actions and how he does against some of the best players in the world. For now, he’s only played four Premier League games.