When Jose Mourinho made his bow as Manchester United manager against Wigan Athletic in July 2016, Axel Tuanzebe made an impression straight away. “With Axel, 10 minutes is enough. The potential is there, you see it immediately,” the new boss told reporters afterwards.
The 19-year-old was selected for his full debut for Man Utd in the Premier League clash against Arsenal at the Emirates Stadium. His first senior appearance at United - once more against Wigan - had come in Mourinho’s 800th game as a manager in the FA Cup in January. It is fair to say it was a call-up which had been in the pipeline for some time.
The young centre-back had looked destined for a first-team bow under Louis van Gaal during the Dutchman’s second season in charge. He was an unused substitute for the trip to Crystal Palace in October 2015 and then would surely have been among the host of young players to receive call-ups in the spring of 2016 were it not for an injury which ruled him out of the majority of the second half of the campaign.
But while the likes of Cameron Borthwick-Jackson, Tim Fosu-Mensah, James Weir, Donald Love and Guillermo Varela have experienced very different spells in the jungle that is senior football since Marcus Rashford stole the spotlight during those early months of 2016, Tuanzebe now looks ready to make the step up to the United first team under Mourinho.
Having made the trip to Hull City for the second leg of United's EFL Cup semi-final as an unused squad member, he stepped off the bench three days later as the Red Devils thrashed Wigan.
He enjoyed an impressive first half of the 2016-17 season as captain of the United Under-23 side. While promising midfielder Sean Goss was sold to Queens Park Rangers during the mid-season window, United were not about to consider cutting ties with the centre-back. His authority, awareness, ability on the ball, leadership and aerial prowess have combined to make him a real stand-out in the youth ranks, and Mourinho has clearly been keeping his eye on the DR Congo product.
Having quickly established himself at under-21 level after moving up from the under-18 squad, Tuanzebe showed no signs of shirking the increased responsibility, and if anything he grew as a result of the added workload. He certainly lost none of his combative instincts, and his capacity to take on challenges of all types has helped to build his reputation still more.
When Mourinho first arrived at the club he boasted of a record for bringing through youth players that left many sceptical. Known more for his push for short-term gains than his faith in long-term prospects, the 54-year-old felt the need to fight his corner. For Tuanzebe to be his first promotion at United is quite a statement, but the player himself has insisted he still needs to keep persuading Mourinho that he has what it takes.
“There’s no better feeling, but I can’t let it go to my head and relax now,” Tuanzebe told MUTV in February . “I’ve got to keep my head down and keep proving to him why he should have faith in me. I’ve got to keep pushing every day and showing why I should be in the team and why I’m here at the club.
“It’s definitely been good training with superstars and I can learn a lot from these players every day. I’m always willing to learn and try my best. It doesn’t depend on the level, I could be with the Under-23s or the first team, I always try my best to improve as a player."
And he will have to be at his best if he is to break through longer term. With Eric Bailly, Chris Smalling, Phil Jones, Marcos Rojo and Daley Blind as senior centre-back options, it will take something special for Tuanzebe to become a fixture in Mourinho’s squad. But academy chief and interim U-23 boss Nicky Butt has spent many a post-match interview praising his skipper and backing him for a short route to the big time.
But judging by his impressive run at youth level, he is certainly one to look out for in the future.