Manchester United pride themselves on youth production, with the records associated with their consistent focus on bringing academy players into the first team well known. As MailOnline noted, there has been a graduate in every Red Devils matchday squad stretching back as far as 1937.
Concerns were voiced about this record perhaps being broken after Jose Mourinho took the reins at the club this summer, and while Marcus Rashford and Jesse Lingard should keep it intact for this season at least, there will be many fearing this proud tradition may be curtailed during the Portuguese’s reign.
This, of course, magnifies the focus on United’s current youth team, with fans looking to it with the hope that another magnificent talent like Rashford will rise, placing minds at ease. The knowledge that this kid will likely have to be really good to convince Mourinho to trust him is widespread, creating a desperation among the supporters for Nicky Butt’s youth setup to produce another star.
That star, it seems, might just be present in Axel Tuanzebe. The Democratic Republic of Congo-born defender has risen through the age groups quickly at United, and he earned the captain’s armband at under-18 level the moment he was eligible. "It was the first time I'd picked a first-year scholar as captain," former academy coach Paul McGuinness told the Manchester Evening News (h/t the Mirror).
The coaches love his personality, his leadership skills and his on-pitch talents. Mourinho has had his head turned too, and gave Tuanzebe a run-out during United’s pre-season victory over Wigan Athletic. It was only seven minutes (plus stoppage time), but it was a big seven minutes with regard to cementing his status as the biggest talent bubbling under the surface for the club.
A shade over 6’0" at just 18 years of age, Tuanzebe towers over most youth players and has between two and three years left of growth in him. He has a surprisingly slim frame, but that doesn’t stop him rising early and high to dominate aerially.
Granted, when stepping up to a professional level he will need to pack on a certain amount of weight to compete; training alongside someone as strong as Zlatan Ibrahimovic will illuminate just how far he has to go before being able to match up against the best.
But unless you’re a Kurt Zouma-esque prodigy, this is natural for an 18-year-old. Over the next three years he’ll get taller and fill out, enabling him to transfer his aerial prowess from youth football to its senior equivalent. Right now, a ball floated into his box will end up on his forehead, and he makes contact with almost everything, managing good clearing distance, too.
The most intriguing part of Tuanzebe’s game—and the most impressive, it must be said—is his willingness to not just step out of the defensive line, but surge from it in order to contest one-on-one duels with attackers. There are times when that can be extremely reckless, and it’s imperative you get it right...or else.
Tuanzebe is perhaps the boldest, most aggressive tracker from centre-back you’ll see in years. Between 10 and 15 times per game, he dashes from his line to confront an attacker with his back to goal receiving the ball. Even if that player has dropped right off the line and into midfield, he’ll follow; he doesn’t let anyone drift away to find an easier area of the pitch to work in.
Certain coaches will love this, certain coaches will hate it. The fact that Tuanzebe gets it right almost every time is testament to his judgement and natural football IQ. He’ll frequently get a toe in and dispossess or block, and if necessary, he’ll give away a tactical foul that halts the game and allows him to get back into position. It's rather Javi Martinez-esque from his time at Athletic Club Bilbao under Marcelo Bielsa.
Due to his aerial strengths, opposing goalkeepers often kick short to their strikers and get them to drop back to receive the pass, but Tuanzebe will just follow, contest and win the header. He sticks tight—really tight—and defends high up whenever possible, refusing to let attackers turn and go.
In this specific attribute, he reminds of United’s new £30 million man Eric Bailly, who also sticks to attackers like glue high up and does everything he can to ensure they cannot receive and turn. The game against Hull City was a prime example of this, as the Ivorian prevented Abel Hernandez and Adama Diomande from having a relief influence on the game.
Again, Tuanzebe needs muscle and strength conditioning to be able to stop Premier League attackers being turned, but the signs are he wants to play an aggressive, dominant game high up.
Playing in a high line and from an aggressive stance leaves you vulnerable to two major issues: mistakes leading to chances, and balls over the top from deep should the midfield pressure not prevent them. For a player to feel comfortable facing these risks, his recovery speed, positioning and judgement of angles must be excellent, and Tuanzebe ticks all three boxes.
He’s quick across the ground and, like Tottenham Hotspur’s Cameron Carter-Vickers, backs himself to close the gap between himself and an attacker.
But while Carter-Vickers often sprints toward his man in an effort to remove the space a runner can use, Tuanzebe sits off a little more and blocks the angle to goal. His judgement of this is excellent, and he frequently makes near-post clearances or stops by sticking a foot out at the right time.
Similarly, he’s often well positioned to intercept crosses, preventing them from passing the near-post area. It’s an understanding remarkably few centre-backs possess, and it’s perhaps an underrated attribute given the danger it can prevent.
Tuanzebe will have a tough time displacing £30 million Bailly, England’s best centre-back Chris Smalling, and cool customer Daley Blind—who up until the Manchester derby had been playing very well. But the fact he can play in holding midfield if required may give him an extra edge, as playing a 6’0"-plus player in the engine room is right up Mourinho’s street.
The 18-year-old's style makes him a natural stand-in for Bailly, as they share similar aggressive traits, but playing both together might just be a disaster, ripping apart the stopper-sweeper combination many defences are built on. He’d be able to play with Blind sweeping, though.
The fact Tuanzebe was called up to the senior setup for pre-season is extremely positive, as it means Mourinho will have cast a firm eye over his strengths and weaknesses. He managed less than 10 minutes on the pitch against Wigan, but the Portuguese remarked “10 minutes is enough! The potential is there, you see it immediately,” per the Manchester Evening News.
That fabled United record of including an academy graduate in every matchday squad since 1937 is safe in the hands of Lingard and Rashford for now, and perhaps in the hands of Tuanzebe in the future.