Kylian Mbappe scored a hat trick against Barcelona in the UEFA Champions League Tuesday night. Naturally, Manchester United fans reacted by doing what we always do, make it about themselves.
Some used Mbappe as a means to say Marcus Rashford isn’t good (ludicrous), others used Rashford’s goals record to put him in the same category as Mbappe (also ridiculous). Then there were the ones who made it about Axel Tuanzebe.
Or maybe it was more using Tuanzebe to take some thinly veiled shots at Ole Gunnar Solskjaer.
It’s very easy to sit here in February and make blanket statements about how Tuanzebe has been managed this season – especially given how porous United’s defense has been recently. But those blanket statements strip out all the context of what was going on at the time (October) and when you add that back in, they come off as rather hysterical.
Tuanzebe started on the right side of a back three for United in their Champions League group stage match at PSG. He spent the entire match going up against the aforementioned Mbappe and gave him nothing. It was a 10/10 performance. Truly sensational.
That’s the kind of talent that Axel Tuanzebe has. We know that. But plenty of players have that kind of talent. What separates the good ones from the great ones is how often they play at that level compared to how often they don’t hit that level.
Given the hype around Axel for the past few years it suddenly seemed justified. Given the obvious limitations of the Harry Maguire-Victor Lindelof centerback partnership, it was time for Axel to get a run in the team.
But that run never came. Why not?
For starters, Lindelof kept him out.
That PSG match was Tuanzebe’s first match in 10 months. He had just returned from an ankle injury so there was no way Solskjaer was going to throw him back out there the following weekend if he had other defenders fit. Especially given United were playing a Chelsea side that had scored 10 goals in their last three matches.
Harry Maguire returned to the side and United kept high flying Chelsea at bay, keeping a clean sheet and holding them to an xG of 0.2 (Chelsea playing very conservatively certainly played a factor in this). Three days later United trotted out the same back four at home against RB Leipzig in the Champions League. Another clean sheet with an xG of 0.5. The following weekend against Arsenal, nearly the same story. United held the Gunners to a non-penalty xG of 0.34. The only goal they conceded came on a penalty given away by Paul Pogba. A week later, Everton managed a break through but were held to an xG of 0.6. Following the international break it was another clean sheet with an xG of 0.6 to West Brom. A week later Southampton did manage to score two goals – both from set pieces – but they were held to an xG of 0.4 (~0.25 from open play).
To recap. Over the next six games that Lindelof played the full 90 minutes in, United conceded just one goal from open play a non-penalty xG of just 2.6 (0.43 xG per game). In other words they were really freakin good.
In the meantime, Tuanzebe would get another chance when United travelled to Istanbul. After dealing with Mbappe so brilliantly, Tuanzebe was ran ragged by Demba Ba. He wasn’t at fault for the goals conceded, but he only lasted 45 minutes and his substitution was justified. In the return fixture Tuanzebe came on at halftime where he fared better but still struggled with Ba and picked up a completely pointless yellow card that ruled him out of the PSG fixture.
Young players are going to be inconsistent but the argument that ‘he needs a run of games’ doesn’t carry much weight when Tuanzebe was at his best after not playing for 10 months. The second booking against Istanbul was very immature and young inexperienced players are going to make immature plays like that from time to time. However, if you’re playing on defense you need to show the manager he can trust you and those are the type of plays that will make any manager hesitant to give you that trust.
Managers are always reluctant to make changes at the back. Changes in the midfield and on the wings they’ll make all day, but at the back they want consistency. If United were playing strong defensively why would they shuffle around that defense especially given their position in the league?
Oh that’s right. This was back when United were in their ‘club in crisis’ stage. Losing to Arsenal and Istanbul in the space of three days, fans wanted Solskjaer’s head on a stick. Ordinarily, if you’re trying to break in a centerback, October/November is the perfect time to get him some games, but the ferocity of the fans/media going after Solskjaer for being 9th in the table meant now wasn’t the time for experimentation, now was the time for results. In fact, the fans who today are saying he mismanaged Tuanzebe’s minutes are the same ones who back then were saying ‘we’ve hit the ceiling with Solskjaer, he either needs to get results or we need to make a change.’ (I know this because I’ve seen the tweets). In their defense – at the time they were also calling for Axel to play more – but no manager is going to change things at the back up when they’re playing well.
Fans may wonder why Lindelof and Maguire – despite being a very flawed partnership – are Ole’s first choice pair. When you’re looking for consistency at the back ‘the best ability is availability.’ Eric Bailly’s run in late December showed that if he could just stay fit he’d probably overtake Lindelof as a first choice CB, but as he’s done throughout his entire career, he couldn’t stay fit.
Maguire and Lindelof are always available. Unfortunately, Axel Tuanzebe is not.
Tuanzebe went on loan in the second half of 2017/18 where he was in and out of Aston Villa’s squad (unclear if that was through injury or not). The following year he spent the full season on loan at Villa but missed three months with a metatarsal fracture. Last year he returned to United, played a couple of games at full back, and was about to get his first big break with a start in a back three against Liverpool, only to hurt his hip in the warm up. He missed a month, returned to play two Europa League matches and come off the bench twice in the Premier League, then lasted 65 minutes in a League Cup match before leaving with an injured thigh. He returned to the bench for the derby just before lockdown, but when United returned in June he had already picked up the ankle injury that would keep him out until October. (He missed time in December as well though it’s unclear if that was because of an injury or he was just dropped).
It’s not easy for young players, especially defenders. You’re going to make mistakes and managers can’t live with mistakes at the back. The only way defenders really get a chance to break through is through injury. The senior players are out, the manager has no choice but to turn to you so even when you make the inevitable mistake, he doesn’t have a choice. He has to stick with you. That’s when you get a run of games and display that consistency. For Tuanzebe that’s a bit of an issue when Lindelof and Maguire are always fit and available.
Other than the match against PSG, when Tuanzebe has gotten chances this season his performances haven’t exactly been commanding any more playing time then he’s currently getting. He’s has yet to get that run of games so the jury is still out, but it is fair to start wondering where exactly he plays best.
Tuanzebe has been moved all over the pitch in his short career. His break through came under Jose Mourinho who deployed him as a defensive midfielder, where he was ~meh~. He played three games there, only completing 90 minutes once and has never played there since, but that hasn’t stopped United fans from asking if he can play there. It’s not uncommon for managers to do this with ball playing centerbacks. Give them a taste of the Premier League with less defensive responsibility so someone can clean up your mistakes. Then they move them to fullback before finally pushing them back to the middle. United did the same thing with Phil Jones.
He played as a centerback for Aston Villa though the Villains kept more clean sheets (in fewer games) without Tuanzebe then they did with him. I’m not saying that’s attributed to Tuanzebe as there are plenty of other factors that influence that but it’s also not the best stat to have on your resume either. When he returned to United his only Premier League appearances came as a full back, showing Solskjaer may have been reluctant to consider him in the middle.
His best performances have come on the right side of a back three and at right back (Everton in the League Cup). When you play in a three you’re dealing with forwards in the half spaces, you’re more worried about speed and dribbling then getting into a physical battle. When you’re in a back four you have to deal more on the physical side, and he’s struggled there. Perhaps Tuanzebe just isn’t going to be a top level centerback?
The above is a very generalized sweeping answer based on… I’m not really sure? The idea this fan created in their head of what Axel Tuanzebe is? It’s certainly not based on what happened on the pitch this year.
This season Tuanzebe has looked his worst when playing next to Maguire (the two Istanbul matches, Sheffield United). He looked his best in a back three – next to Lindelof. Last season when he did play at centerback (in the League Cup and Europa League) most of his minutes came next to Phil Jones.
Tuanzebe hasn’t gotten the run of games to really show if he can make it or not, but that’s a two way street. Defenders aren’t just handed ‘runs in the team’ to see what you got, you have to earn them. If you want to make it you need to take your chances when they’re given. You need to show the manager he can trust you and force him to keep you in the team. Since the PSG match none of his performances have really warranted giving him an extended look. The more he plays the more it seems like that PSG match was more of a one off than the norm we should expect from him.
Yes he’s been unlucky a few times, but it also seems like bad luck keeps managing to find him. It was unlucky that United conceded from Everton’s last minute set piece, but Tuanzebe never should have gone lunging into that tackle. His performance against PSG was noteworthy for him not going to ground. Here he just lunged in. It’s bad game management. It’s immaturity. It’s an opportunity for the manager to say “hmm I don’t know if I can trust him in a big spot?”
I like Axel Tuanzebe. I really hope that one day it suddenly clicks and he can turn into the centerback that we all think he could be. But for now, if he wants to play more, he needs to take his chances to show he can be trusted. Not having a run of games can’t be an excuse.