Manchester United’s shambolic defense pretty much unraveled the entire 2018/19 season. From José Mourinho’s preseason rage over the denial of his desired backline additions to the countless defensive breakdowns throughout the campaign, most of the club’s troubles can be traced back to that much-maligned unit.
Despite the obvious struggles of Marcus Rashford, Romelu Lukaku, and Anthony Martial in attack, United actually finished with comparable league goal totals to Chelsea and Tottenham Hotspur. There’s plenty of improvement still needed on that front, but the glaring problem is 54 goals allowed. That’s the worst mark in the top six and demands immediate attention.
Mourinho famously begged and pleaded with Ed Woodward for defensive help last summer — to no avail — and now Ole Gunnar Solskjaer appears to be in the market for one (or more) top-class defenders. Perhaps Aaron Wan-Bissaka, Harry Maguire, Kalidou Koulibaly, or even Matthijs de Ligt will walk through the door this summer and lock down their position for the better part of a decade.
But, especially considering United’s recent misadventures in the transfer market, perhaps not. Hopefully, though, part of the solution might already be on the club’s books. Axel Tuanzebe, a 21-year-old center back, just wrapped up a hugely successful loan spell at Aston Villa, playing a critical role in the fallen giant’s promotion push. He started out at right back under Steve Bruce, but really took off after shifting into the center when Dean Smith (and assistant John Terry) joined up in October.
The only downside to Tuanzebe’s time at Villa Park was a midseason metatarsal fracture that cost him 17 games. A serious injury, no doubt, but also an isolated incident. Tuanzebe rarely misses time — either through injury or suspension. In fact, he didn’t pick up a single yellow card all season for Aston Villa. Luke Shaw could take a lesson.
Even with that time on the sidelines, Tuanzebe shone at Villa Park. So much so that the playoff champs desperately hold out hope for another season-long loan in 2019/20. Solskjaer and United, though, would be wise to ignore any advances from the Midlands and instead plot out a first-team role for the youngster at Old Trafford. He’s only made eight senior appearances for the Reds and should be given the chance to grow that number in the season ahead.
Tuanzebe’s probably not ready to start at United, partly from inexperience and partly considering what looks to be a questionable fit next to Victor Lindelöf. Most think Lindelöf, who enjoyed his own breakout this season, would excel next to a physical partner. And that’s not Tuanzebe. He’s not necessarily a finesse player, but neither an imposing physical presence.
The Manchester Evening News points out that, while Tuanzebe fared well in the Championship in terms of defensive duel success rate, his aerial stats left something to be desired. Of 66 qualified players, he ranked 63rd in defending aerial balls. No player is perfect, but that’s probably not what Solskjaer’s looking for in Lindelöf’s ideal partner.
Tuanzebe’s ideal role for next season might be a low-cost backup to Lindelöf, which should highlight his comfort in bringing the ball out from the back.
Even better, his presence in the rotation could ease the exit for one of Chris Smalling, Phil Jones, or Marcos Rojo. Trim the wage bill, get younger, and give a deserving academy grad a real chance at cementing a first-team role. For a team struggling to meet their own players’ wage demands for contract extensions, replacing a high-priced veteran with Tuanzebe appears to be a smart financial move. Or at least as good as signing another sleeve sponsor or whatever Woodward’s cooking up next.
On the contract front, Tuanzebe’s deal runs until 2020 (although United reportedly hold an option for a further year). If Solskjaer’s ready to pull the trigger on Tuanzebe in the first team, United might as well go ahead and tie him down to a long-term agreement.
Happily, the higher-ups at United seem to recognize the value in bringing Tuanzebe back into the fold. “Axel is a very talented boy, who I do believe is going to have a good career at Manchester United,” says academy head Nicky Butt. “There’s no point sitting around not playing football and he’s gone to Aston Villa, who are a big, big club.”
Ole agrees. “He’s a boy that I can’t wait to see in preseason for us.”
Another point to consider: Solskjaer mentioned that a major emphasis of his preseason program will be increased fitness levels. Part of that’s down to conditioning, but replacing aging players with young guns helps too.
Axel Tuanzebe patiently bided his time at Manchester United, going out on loan to a massive club, carving out a big role there, and carrying them back to the Premier League. If the club is serious about renewing its commitment to youth players, then Tuanzebe needs to be a part of it.