Axel Tuanzebe is perhaps the best youth player currently not being regularly selected for Manchester United’s squad. It is almost universally agreed upon by United supporters that he has the potential to be a world-class defender, known for pressing against attackers when necessary, for forcing turnovers and for being dominant in the air. He is still a bit reckless in his tackling, as evidenced by the yellow card given during his sole appearance in the Carabao Cup against Swansea City, but his tenacious defending is something the likes of Matteo Darmian, Daley Blind and Ashley Young have yet to provide at left-back.
Blind and Darmian both seem helpless at times, and Ashley Young is an aging winger playing simply because he’s the only defender among them that can deliver an accurate cross into the box. Young also does well pushing the ball forward, something Tuanzebe has also been able to achieve during his brief stints in the first team, utilizing his pace and ability to intercept the ball to create counter-attacking opportunities.
In Tuanzebe’s aforementioned performance against Swansea City, he was an absolute delight to watch, and if the tragedy of Luke Shaw continues, he should be in line to either end the hapless experiment at left-back or at the very least, back up Antonio Valencia on the right. The recent injuries to Phil Jones and Eric Bailly have also opened an opportunity at center-back.
Currently, only Chris Smalling, Victor Lindelöf and a newly rehabilitated Marcus Rojo are available. With Rojo returning from injury and with Lindelöf struggling to find any semblance of consistent form, It would seem to be the perfect opportunity for him to make the first team. Admittedly, Lindelöf played well against Brighton, but he’s still a far cry from being even remotely relied upon in big matches. José Mourinho, as short-handed as his squad is, has elected to keep Tuanzebe either out of the first team or sporadically on the bench.
José Mourinho recently spoke with Mirror Sport about the tradition of bringing youth to the first team:
“To follow a certain pathway [Promoting Youth Players] is important. I am doing it with McTominay. Mr. Van Gaal had the start of Rashford, I am having it with Scott McTominay and, next year, there should be another.”
Mourinho’s comments seem to suggest that Scott McTominay is the only youth player he currently sees in a steady first team role, and it begs two questions: Is he done promoting youth players to the first team until next year? and Why McTominay over Tuanzebe?
The easiest answer would be that we were more depleted in the midfield and therefore needed McTominay more, but if we’re being honest, Scott McTominay is simply a Mourinho player. He has a high work rate, he’s tall, and he presses high up the pitch. He’s just signed a new contract extension, he shows no signs of slowing in his development under the United boss, and he could potentially be Mourinho’s replacement for Marouane Fellaini in the summer.
McTominay could very well be a solid player after he develops a bit more, but therein lies the difference between him and Tuanzebe. Tuanzebe’s potential is, based on what we’ve seen so far, much higher. He reminds me of a young Paul Pogba before he left for Juventus. Obviously, they are very different players, but they have the same raw power in their play, and if he were to become unsettled at United, a similar history could repeat itself.
Tuanzebe has remained in high spirits despite Mourinho’s hesitance in playing him, speaking to MUTV last month:
“I’d say I’ve matured and my football style has matured. I think I make better decisions now, you learn about prioritizing the team more rather than playing for yourself… Everyone is happy. The manager has rotated the squad and had players in and out and we’ve been getting great results.”
Axel Tuanzebe should have been in the Manchester United squad on Saturday when they were home to Brighton. The injuries to Jones and Bailly and the abysmal form of Daley Blind, Matteo Darmian and Victor Lindelöf should have been enough for Jose to give the youngster a chance in the Premier League against a weaker side. Alas, he did not. As a matter of fact, he only had five defenders in his squad, including Marcus Rojo. It was a dangerous gamble, given the defense’s problems with injuries lately, but the result is often all that matters. Will the manager give him a chance this season? What do you think about José Mourinho’s handling of the youth players?