Greater Manchester is about to be locked down but United have unlocked the potential in Rochdale-raised Axel Tuanzebe. It was a good night for ‘Dale land’ – Tuanzebe’s moniker for his hometown – for Rochdale won at Burton and Tuanzebe sizzled in Paris. The local ‘paper, the Rochdale Observer, should be able to find room for both in the sports section.
Tuanzebe, raised on the Freehold estate near the railway station after his family left the Democratic Republic of Congo, is already one of the town’s modern success stories and one of only nine players Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has chosen to captain United. Fittingly, that was against Rochdale.
His recall against Paris Saint-Germain came a year to the day since Tuanzebe was selected for United to start against Liverpool, only he sustained a hip injury in the warm-up and has not started in the Premier League since. Last night will go some way to easing that wait.
“All he needed was the opportunity to showcase his talent,” a source close to Tuanzebe said after United’s magnificent victory. Tuanzebe has been encumbered by injuries throughout his development at United but the stars are aligning: the porous start to the season, Harry Maguire’s absence in Paris and news Eric Bailly is sidelined (again) for up to a month.
Tuanzebe still had the daunting task of being pitted against the Gaullacticos of PSG on his first appearance since he limped off against Colchester 10 months ago. Yet if Tuanzebe ever had an inferiority complex he shed it at St John’s Roman Catholic Primary School in Rochdale, when he was playing in the Year Six team when he was in Year Three.
From Carabao to the continent: in each half at the Parc des Princes Tuanzebe left the maddened Mbappe with a worm’s-eye view. His inexplicable booking for brushing Mbappe’s face with his forearm also represented a victory. Mbappe had no appetite for the physical duel.
Tuanzebe played just two stray passes and won his three direct duels with Mbappe. “Axel did fantastic,” Ole Gunnar Solskjaer enthused. “He’s been out since the last game against Colchester, 10 months or something? To put up a performance like this against Neymar and Mbappe… I have to say he almost surprised us as well. We know he’s a good player but on a night like this, he was fantastic.”
Tuanzebe turns 23 next month and Halloween marks the fifth anniversary of his first United squad appearance at Crystal Palace. For someone with only 13 starts and six substitute appearances, Tuanzebe has transcended three different United managers: recognised by Louis van Gaal, debuted under Jose Mourinho and promoted by Ole Gunnar Solskjaer.
Even the caustic pages of the RedIssue fanzine reserved room for Tuanzebe in one of their last editions in late 2014. United youth coaches had identified Tuanzebe as a future first-teamer and, mindful of Van Gaal’s insistence on a right-footed-left-footed partnership, predicted a partnership with Marcos Rojo. They were half-prescient.
Six years later, both are remarkably still at the club though the lingering Rojo will be fortunate to ever play for United again. United have spent £140million on centre-backs since Tuanzebe caught Van Gaal’s eye and he has recovered from ill-timed injuries that would have been the death knell for other teenagers. Tuanzebe was sidelined for four months midway through 2015-16 – a period where Van Gaal played Joe Riley, Regan Poole and James Weir.
Mourinho singled out Tuanzebe – unprompted – after his first match in charge in a friendly at Wigan in July 2016. “You can play 90 minutes or one minute. Sometimes one minute is enough. With Axel, ten minutes is enough!” Mourinho beamed. “The potential is there, you see it immediately.
“You know him better than me because you know him for a few years but, if anyone sees him for the first time, ten minutes is enough to see the potential.” Mourinho included Tuanzebe in all three of his pre-season tour squads and arranged for fruitful loans at Aston Villa.
Few are better judges of what makes a United defender than Steve Bruce, Tuanzebe’s manager at the start of his two spells at Villa Park. “There’s still a few things to fix, but that’s normal,” Bruce said. They have been fixed.
That Solskjaer was prepared to pit Tuanzebe against Mane, Salah and Firmino last year made his inclusion against Neymar, Mbappe and Di Maria inevitable. Harry Maguire, another Bruce prodigy, is the more senior centre-back and more aligned with United’s 90s double-winning captain. Tuanzebe was better suited to keeping up with Mbappe’s marauding down the left-hand channel, with Luke Shaw on the left of a back three, sparing the vigilant Victor Lindelof a foot chase.
A first-team status is attainable again for Tuanzebe. His four-month absence with a foot injury and Lindelof’s lethargic start let Bailly back in but the Ivorian has suffered a muscular injury and is not expected to be available until the visit of West Brom on November 21.
Bailly clutched his hamstring on international duty this month – the fourth time that has happened in his United career – and was forced off against Belgium yet played in the Ivory Coast’s next friendly against Japan five days later. His race is run.
The brittle Bailly started 24 Premier League games in his first season of 2016-17 and has lined up in 21 since. Bailly has entered the last two years of his contract and United cannot justify offering him improved terms.
Phil Jones has been cut from the Champions and Premier League squads and Rojo was omitted from the former. United can release Rojo, 30, in the summer and the New Year has to bring about a new club for Jones, 29 in February. Bailly could get a stay of execution beyond next summer but shifting three centre halves would recognise Tuanzebe’s talent.
And lock him down on a new contract.