Sun. Jan 17th, 2021

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Man United can revamp their defence this January without spending millions

4 min read

It’s a fact that sometimes needs repeating, to remind everyone of its truth: Axel Tuanzebe is a Guinness World Record holder.

The Manchester United defender has many abilities on a football pitch, skills he continues to enhance whenever first team chances come his way under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer. But he may never better his talent for clearing a Hungry Hungry Hippos board. In 2018, his time of 17.36 seconds was officially declared a world record, the best the planet has ever seen when it comes to the board game.

Many might think this has little or no bearing on his ability to perform in the United defence. It’s a fact of such eccentricity that you might expect it to be true of Eric Bailly, or maybe Phil Jones, rather than the cool-headed Tuanzebe.

The 23-year-old has, however, shown himself to possess extraordinary versatility and pliability albeit in a disrupted spell in Solskjaer’s first team. He is patient, too, though he has to feel his regular run in the side is not far over the horizon. We know from his Hungry Hippos score that he is competitive and dexterous. Now United need the whole range of Tuanzebe’s skillset.

Another injury set-back for Bailly while playing alongside Tuanzebe in United’s 1-0 FA Cup win over Watford was a reminder that the Ivorian is horribly brittle. There’s a strong argument to say Bailly is United’s best defender but he cannot be relied upon to maintain fitness. Tuanzebe, while having his injury issues last season, is ready to step up with doubt lingering over Victor Lindelof’s fitness too amid a longstanding back issue.

Rio Ferdinand assessed Tuanzebe’s playing time while on punditry duty for the Watford game and came to a logical conclusion.

The former United centre-back said: “I think there has to be a moment in your career where you say, ‘Listen I’ve been here a long time, I’ve done the groundwork, everyone knows what I’m about, and where do I stand in the rankings in the club?’

“I’d say at the moment, he’s probably fourth-choice. Does he want to play football? He did well against PSG, against world-class opposition, and then he doesn’t play.

“As a player, surely you’re thinking that you had a taste and you want more.”

Ferdinand is right. It is approaching make or break time for Tuanzebe; indeed United are standing at a crossroads when it comes to their entire defence. Jose Mourinho signings Bailly and Lindelof have impressed in fits and starts, but have failed in terms of consistency, while Marcos Rojo and Phil Jones — who have been on United’s ‘unwanted list’ for some time — may finally depart soon.



Axel Tuanzebe could soon get a run in the United side

It feels like the perfect time to promote Tuanzebe as the de facto partner for Harry Maguire at the back, while at the same time planning to recruit another centre-back. Bailly is talented but he cannot be a first team pick, while many would argue Lindelof’s chances are running out, despite having formed a semi-effective partnership with Maguire. Between now and the summer is the ideal transition period.

United admire Brighton’s Ben White as well as RB Leipzig centre-back Dayot Upamecano, though neither would come particularly cheap — and may be unattainable until the summer in any case. At least £40million would be required to sign either of them.

Where United must invest this January is at right-back, where Brandon Williams looked short of confidence against Watford and where Aaron Wan-Bissaka needs to be challenged. Luke Shaw would attest to the benefit of some good competition, which has been provided by Alex Telles since October. Shaw has noticeably improved thanks to the pressure brought by the Brazilian and there’s a feeling around United that a young up-and-coming player such as Norwich’s Max Aarons would fire Wan-Bissaka back to life.

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McTominay scored as he captained United to victory

Manchester United got back to winning ways with a low-key 1-0 victory over Watford in the FA Cup.

Scott McTominay’s early header was enough for the win at Old Trafford, as United booked their place in the hat for the fourth round.

United will now refocus on their league campaign with crucial games to come this week against Burnley and Liverpool.

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That may allow United to loan out Williams — who wants a temporary move to another Premier League — to rediscover the form he showed when breaking into the senior set-up last year. United passed on the opportunity to promote youngster Ethan Laird to second choice right-back, loaning him to MK Dons instead, while Timothy Fosu-Mensah is little more than a back up.

United broke the bank to reshape their defence in Solskjaer’s first major transfer window, summer 2019. The combined £125million outlay on Maguire and Wan-Bissaka has been justified; the United defence has improved significantly since.

But in the past 18 months Solskjaer has taken the United attack to the next level, to the stage now where it’s among the most dangerous in the Premier League.

This January transfer window is more difficult than most, amid covid-19 concerns and tight finances. But United may have the perfect opportunity to overhaul their defence on a budget.

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