'A captain in the making' - Can Axel Tuanzebe become Man Utd's first-choice left-back?

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Axel Tuanzebe Man Utd
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The 21-year-old may have made an error against Arsenal on Monday but he impressed with his maturity and the way in which he nullified Nicolas Pepe

Axel Tuanzebe was going through his usual stretching routine ahead of Manchester United's League Cup clash with Rochdale last week when Mike Phelan approached and asked him a question that took him completely by surprise.

"Are you ready to go talk to the referee?" the assistant manager enquired.

"What do you mean?" a confused Tuanzebe replied. "You're captain," Phelan revealed, "Let's go!"

At 21 years of age, Tuanzebe would be leading his team out at Old Trafford. "I had goosebumps," he admitted afterwards.

Tuanzebe actually made his first-team debut in 2017 but only now has he really worked himself into first-team contention.

Indeed, he has taken his time to emerge as a legitimate option in defence but a successful loan spell at Aston Villa last season significantly aided his development.

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer was certainly impressed by what he saw, admitting in May that Tuanzebe was "a boy I can't wait to see in pre-season training".

The Norwegian was taken with Tuanzebe's temperament as much as his talent – hence the decision to hand him the captain's armband ahead of the likes of Paul Pogba for the visit of Rochdale.

"Why not give it to young kids?" Solskjaer asked. "Axel is a captain in the making, he’s a leader. And he was fine; he enjoyed it."

Solskjaer was just as pleased with the way in which Tuanzebe reacted to the role he played in Arsenal’s equalising goal in Monday's Premier League draw at Old Trafford.

Tuanzebe didn't let the wayward pass midway through the second half knock his confidence; he simply went back to nullifying the Gunners' £72 million ($88m) winger Nicolas Pepe.

The Ivorian's performance was slated by many pundits and fans but the role Tuanzebe played in keeping Pepe quiet didn't go unnoticed by Solskjaer, who was full of praise for the way in which his young charge adapted to playing out of position.

Axel Tuanzebe Man Utd PS

"I think Pepe's a threat and Axel did really well," the Norwegian enthused. "We've had a few injuries and illnesses and [playing Axel at left-back] was a decision we took when Aaron wasn't fit to play."

It would still come as something of a surprise if Tuanzebe emerges as a long-term option at left-back. In his years with various youth sides at the club, Tuanzebe was predominantly used as a central defender.

However, he did impress as a left-back during the club’s 2017-18 pre-season tour under Jose Mourinho, demonstrating a comfort on the ball that is sorely lacking amongst many of the more senior players at Solskjaer’s disposal.

Certainly, with Luke Shaw still recovering from his latest injury, Tuanzebe has been presented with an unexpected opportunity to stake a claim for a starting spot.

On top of Shaw's longstanding fitness issues, there is a feeling at Old Trafford that he lacks the right mindset to build upon his occasionally bright performances.

Conversely, the way in which Tuanzebe conducts himself on and off the pitch – his humility at the 2017 club awards ceremony was noted by many of those present – has made him an attractive option in defence.

In addition, he was a popular member of the same Under-18 squad as Marcus Rashford and Timothy Fosu-Mensah, so is finding the step up to the senior squad easier than others his age.

Axel Tuanzebe Solskjaer Man Utd PS

His former coaches at under-age level have also long believed he would have little trouble adapting to the requirements of top-flight football.

United's faith in him was underlined by the fact that even though he was given a new three-year contract in July, with the option of a further year, the club refused to even entertain the idea of sending him out on loan this season, and instead allowed Chris Smalling to depart for Roma.

The plan was always for Tuanzebe to be a part of the senior squad for the 2019-20 campaign.

Naturally, he would prefer to play in his natural position, in the centre of defence, but there is little chance of him breaking up Harry Maguire's promising partnership with Victor Lindelof, for now at least.

United have seen a few youngsters fail to break through in defence of late, with Tyler Blackett and Cameron Borthwick-Jackson unable to make progress.

However, Tuanzebe's versatility could work in his favour and allow him to gain invaluable first-team experience before moving into his preferred position in the middle.

Certainly, with Shaw still struggling to prove his fitness ahead of Thursday's Europa League clash with AZ, Solskjaer may once again turn to Tuanzebe.

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And why not trust in the kids? Tuanzebe is, after all, a captain in the making.

The mistake against Arsenal hasn't changed Solskjaer's mind in that regard; if anything, his belief has been strengthened by response to it.

As the manager said, "We trust him." And they will continue to do so.

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