Axel Tuanzebe may only be 22 years old but he is already viewed as a leader at Manchester United.
The centre-back, who came through the ranks at Old Trafford, was rewarded for his mature qualities when he was given the captain’s armband in the Carabao Cup penalty shootout win against Rochdale in September, having already skippered United at every age group.
On last summer's pre-season tour, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer hailed him as ‘"the future of the club" – and yet the defender has struggled for game time this season. He has made only 10 appearances for the first team across all competitions – with just seven starts.
His chances of a regular spot in the starting XI were hindered by a hip injury in the autumn but even upon his return to full fitness, his manager has continued to prefer a partnership of Harry Maguire and Victor Lindelof.
Last summer, after impressing on tour, the defender had a decision to make whether to stay and fight for his place or push to go out on loan again.
He had shown during his spell at Aston Villa the season before that he had the ability to be a regular starter and was highly regarded by Dean Smith after playing a key part in Villa’s promotion to the Premier League.
As the summer transfer window gets closer, Tuanzebe could have another tough decision to make.
There’s some clamour for United to enter the market for another central defender but Solskjaer’s main priorities are elsewhere – and rightly so.
Where once there was a lack of strength in depth at the back, now there’s healthy competition.
Lindelof had a shaky start to the season but he and Maguire have been key to United keeping nine clean sheets during their current 11-game unbeaten run.
The Norwegian also has Eric Bailly back at his disposal and the Ivory Coast international has looked impressive since his return from injury.
Bailly’s resurgence, along with Lindelof and Maguire’s solid partnership, meant Tuanzebe wasn't given a chance to play his part in that recent run of good form.
But it’s a case of playing the waiting game.
“It is difficult when you’re on the bench or not involved. But that’s when your character comes in and you suck it up and try and battle on and try and work as hard as possible,” treble-winner Wes Brown told Goal about Tuanzebe’s first-team chances.
“Axel is a brilliant player and, when he gets there, has to play well and give the manager a problem.”
Solskjaer is key to Tuanzebe progressing at United. The young defender has a good relationship with his manager and trusts the plan the former striker has laid out for him. He only needs to look at where he fits in the pecking order in the first team to know that he is highly regarded.
While Phil Jones has struggled to get in the matchday squads, and didn’t even travel to Austria for the game against LASK last week, Tuanzebe has always been considered when not injured.
At the start of the season, when Solskjaer had a point to prove and a decision to make, it was Tuanzebe who was making the bench ahead of the England international.
Giving him the captaincy against Rochdale was a clear sign from the United boss that Tuanzebe is a key part of his rebuilding project at Old Trafford.
“Axel is a captain in the making, he’s a leader – why not give the armband to young kids?” Solskjaer said about his decision at the time.
“We know we can give it to Sergio (Romero) and we can give it to Paul (Pogba). That’s no problem; they’ve been captains before. But it was Axel and how does he handle it? He was absolutely fine; he enjoyed it.
“‘It’s just a way of telling him that we trust him.”
Tuanzebe has already praised Solskjaer’s man-management and the Rochdale game will go a way to convincing him that his long-term future lies in Manchester.
For a long time, United have struggled to find a good partnership to shield goalkeeper David de Gea but as Solskjaer approaches the first anniversary of his appointment on a full-time basis, the defence is one area of his squad he does not need to prioritise.
Tuanzebe, meanwhile, can be safe in the knowledge that with the right attitude and by biding his time, his chance to prove himself at his boyhood club will come. And probably sooner rather than later.