Tuanzebe's timely return can help solve Man Utd's defensive problems


“He almost surprised us as well,” Ole Gunnar Solskjaer joked after Axel Tuanzebe’s impeccable performance at Parc des Princes on Tuesday night.

The 22-year-old didn’t put a foot wrong in his first Manchester United appearance for 10 months, keeping Kylian Mbappe, Neymar and Angel di Maria quiet in a 2-1 victory over Paris Saint-Germain.

It was quite the step up from defending against League Two side Colchester in December – his last start for the club – and his dominant display after such a lengthy spell on the sidelines said as much about his mental strength as his physical condition.

However, those who have kept a close eye on Tuanzebe’s career will not have been shocked by the calmness with which he placed one of Europe's most feared forward lines in his pocket.

His talent has always been obvious. Just ask Jose Mourinho.

“With Axel, 10 minutes is enough. I only needed 10 minutes to know his potential; you can see it immediately,” the former Manchester United boss said in 2016.

Tuanzebe won the club’s Jimmy Murphy Young Player of the Year award in 2014-15 and he wowed Dean Smith during a hugely productive loan spell at Aston Villa, whom he helped secure promotion to the Premier League in 2018-19.

“If Ole wants to ring me, I’ll give him an excellent report on Axel. He came here as a right-back but I always felt he had the capabilities to be a really good centre-half. He is proving that. He has really grown here,” Smith said of Tuanzebe’s spell in Birmingham.

“He is showing an awful lot of composure. His awareness has also got better, perhaps with the experience of playing regularly. He is also quick, no question about that.”

Solskjaer didn't need any further convincing, though. The Norwegian described Tuanzebe as "the future of the club" on the 2019 pre-season tour and the plan was always to make him a fixture in the squad last season.

However, three separate injuries restricted the versatile defender to just five starts across all competitions, ruling him out of action for 160 days in total.

The obvious hope now, then, is that he can put his fitness issues behind him. If he can, there is no reason why he cannot challenge for a regular starting spot.

However, with club captain Harry Maguire likely to return to the team for Saturday's Premier League meeting with Chelsea, having missed the victory in Paris through injury, Solskjaer now has a big decision to make.

Will Tuanzebe hold on to his place or have to make do with a seat on the bench? He'll at least be buoyed by the fact that he is held in the highest esteem by Solskjaer.

“He’s such a professional character, he wants everything, he works very hard, he has been really, really thorough with his rehab so I’m very pleased for him,” the manager told reporters in Friday's pre-match press conference.

Axel Tuanzebe Kylian Mbappe Manchester United 2020-21 GFX

“Now to get consistency in his performances, he has got to stay injury-free, that’s my job, and his job and the staff’s job. But I think he can kick on now. He's a leader, he can play centre-back, right-back, centre midfield – he can play many positions.

"He's a boy who takes responsibility for his own development and he's doing everything he can to have a long career at United.”

While Solskjaer is understandably enthused by Tuanzebe's versatility and leadership, pace is arguably his most valuable asset to this current United side.

We’ve already seen this season how United’s defensive high line can expose Maguire and Victor Lindelof's distinct lack of pace.

It was hugely encouraging, then, to see how Tuanzebe dealt with the jet-heeled Mbappe in Paris. At one point deep into the second half, the former England Under-21 international not only kept up with the World Cup winner, but also ushed him away from the ball.

So, while United were criticised for not pursuing a centre-back in the summer transfer window, Tuanzebe's timely return to action may just have provided Solskjaer with the solution he was seeking for United's defensive problems.