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Scout Report

Scout Report: Axel Tuanzebe | Manchester United’s defensive starlet

Ravi Inder Gill takes a look at Axel Tuanzebe, Man Utd’s young defender waiting in the shadows.

In today’s game, modern centre-backs are a rare commodity. Defenders with the ability to keep up with the quickest of strikers, the physicality to get stuck in and win the ball, and also the ability to play crisp passes from the back are highly sought after across Europe. If your club are lucky enough to agree terms with a player of this ilk, expect them to pay through their nose for his services, especially with the crazy transfer market we live in today. With a dearth of options available on the market, many clubs have turned to their academies in the hope of finding the next Rio Ferdinand or Sergio Ramos. Premier League and European giants Manchester United, a club known to be a conveyer belt for talent, think they have unearthed the next budding defensive star in Axel Tuanzebe. There’s a lot to know about him.

Who is Axel Tuanzebe?

Born in the Democratic Republic of Congo on November 14th 1997, Axel Tuanzebe moved to England at an early age and was raised in the Greater Manchester town of Rochdale. He joined Manchester United’s famed academy in 2005 and was a member of the club’s Milk Cup Premier U16s winning sides in 2013 and 2014. Tuanzebe captained the academy’s Under-18s side as a first-year scholar in the 2014/2015 season and was awarded the Jimmy Murphy Young Player of Year at the end of the campaign. His U18s coach Paul McGuinness noted that Tuanzebe was the first first-year scholar to captain the academy squad since United icon Gary Neville did it back in the 1991/1992 season. The Rochdale-bred defender received his first call-up to the first-team in October 2015. He was selected for the match-day squad for the fixture against Crystal Palace on October 31 as an unused substitute. Newly appointed manager José Mourinho included Tuanzebe in his 2016 pre-season tour squad and remarked after the academy product’s eight minute debut against Wigan Athletic: “10 minutes is enough! The potential is there, you see it immediately.”

After impressing for the Under-23s in the first half of the 2016/2017 season, Tuanzebe was again called-up to the first-team and made his competitive Manchester United debut in the FA Cup against Wigan Athletic at Old Trafford on January 31. Four days after his professional debut, the club awarded the Congo-born centre-back with a fresh contract running to atleast 2020. Four months after his debut, Tuanzebe made his Premier League debut against Arsenal where he started at his secondary position right-back. Although United went on to lose the match 2-0, the boy from Rochdale was impressive in his debut neutralizing the attacking threat of Alexis Sanchez. He capped off the campaign by picking up the Denzil Haroun Reserve Team Player of the Year award in May. Alongside his club career, Tuanzebe is also a capped England international. The nineteen year-old made his England debut in June 2016 for the Under-19s and has since gone on to make nine appearances for the Three Lions’ Under-20s side.

What is his Style of Play?

Tuanzebe is a prototypical modern centre-back. He is an astute defender who also plays the ball out from the back quite comfortably. The nineteen year-old has a high footballing IQ and uses his intelligence to read the play well. You will rarely see him make a high-risk sliding tackle because his reading of the game is so sharp. Tuanzebe has pace in abundance and uses his athleticism to outmuscle attackers and move the ball out of dangerous areas. A leader, the Rochdale-bred defender is constantly talking to his teammates during the course of the match to ensure cohesion and on-field organization. The England U20s man is an aggressive, yet tactical defender and is often seen running from the backline into the middle of the park to confront defenders and win the ball before initiating a counter-attack. Standing in at 6’1″, Tuanzebe has good height and uses his size to attack set-pieces and chip in with a goal or two for his team.

What are his Strengths?

Tuanzebe has all of the tools he needs to develop into a world-class centre-back. He is a very good ball-playing defender and he has the confidence and ability to dribble past his marker where he will then look to make a good forward pass. The teenager is a calm and composed defender and he knows exactly when to stick out a leg to win the ball standing up and when to go to ground with a hard crunching tackle. Tuanzebe has very good positional awareness – a trait not commonly found in young players. The England international can be relied upon to cover for his teammates when they have been stretched out of position in pursuit of opposition attackers. If he makes an erroneous decision defensively, Tuanzebe will recover well and re-engage in the play until the danger has been averted. The Rochdale-bred centre-back is an aggressive marker and will stick to attackers like glue throughout the match – much like he did against Alexis Sanchez in his eye-opening Premier League debut against Arsenal in May 2017.

Going forward, Tuanzebe can pick a pass with ease and gives his team another option when it comes to launching attacks from deep. As mentioned earlier, Tuanzebe’s pace is another asset of his. The nineteen year-old is very quick for a centre-back and he is able to catch up to the quickest of strikers without a real fuss. His pace brings assurance to the backline as his teammates know that Tuanzebe will be able to cover for them if something goes awry in the defensive phase of the game. Although his future lies at centre-back, the United academy product also has the versatility to play in other positions. Tuanzebe’s reading of the game, ability to organize teammates, and his crisp passing allow him to step into the midfield as a defensive midfielder quite naturally. He can also do a job at right-back where he is able to use his pace and and dribbling to be a difference maker on both ends of the pitch.

What are his Weaknesses?

The only real weakness in Tuanzebe’s game is his inability to consistently deal with set-pieces. Too many times he is beaten in the air when defending corners or long-range free-kicks, gifting the opposition high-quality scoring chances. He needs to work on his positioning and decision-making to rectify this part of his game if he wants to be a trusted defensive cog for the first-team. This process can be expedited if the England youth international were to be paired with a experienced, commanding centre-half (e.g., Eric Bailly) who can organize the backline on set-pieces and take the initiative to attack the balls which are being delivered into the box. Additionally, while his physique is decent, Tuanzebe would do well to add a couple of pounds of muscle to better prepare himself for the next level. Premier League attackers are generally bigger and stronger than the players he faces on a weekly-basis in the Under-23s so there is a risk that he could be outmuscled in the top-flight and in Europe competitions. Tuanzebe is a already a top talent. If he can work on his aerial defending and physique he will only further raise his already elevated ceiling.

Ravi Inder Gill
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