Manchester United defender Axel Tuanzebe needs to play regular football in the Premier League this season for the sake of his development. But that is something he will not get if he stays at Old Trafford, meaning a carefully selected loan move is an absolute must for 2021/22.
Tuanzebe has been highly rated ever since he started making waves in the United academy. He won the club’s prestigious Jimmy Murphy Player of the Year award when he was still a first year scholar, the first since Gary Neville to achieve that, and was first named in a senior matchday squad at 17.
The classy centre-back went on to make his debut towards the back end of the 2016/17 season, before then embarking on 18 months on loan at Aston Villa from January 2018.
Tuanzebe didn’t play much in the first few months because of injury, while a broken foot also interrupted the following season when he went back to Villa Park. But the youngster was a regular starter when fit and got back into the side when he recovered to helped the club secure promotion.
United manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer is an admirer of Tuanzebe. When Eric Bailly was injured, he was happy to have the home-grown star as his third choice centre-back behind starters Harry Maguire and Victor Lindelof to begin 2019/20, favouring him over Phil Jones and Marcos Rojo.
In the end, Tuanzebe played just 11 times in all competitions that season because of hip, thigh and ankle injuries that ensured his only appearance after Christmas was for the Under-23 squad.
He wasn’t fully fit to return until October but was fully thrown in at the deep end when his first senior appearance in 10 months saw him face PSG and Kylian Mbappe. Remarkably, Tuanzebe pocketed the electric Frenchman in a surprise United win. He went on to feature in four of the five remaining Champions League group games, mostly from the bench, and was a regular part of the matchday squad in the Premier League and Europa League for the rest of the season.
However, despite Tuanzebe’s performance against Mbappe, Solskjaer either wasn’t prepared to gamble on him further. When Lindelof had a fitness wobble in December and January, it was a fit-again Bailly who got the nod from the boss to start instead.
Tuanzebe will turn 24 in November, meaning he can no longer be considered a ‘young’ player. But for someone of his age he has played relatively little senior football – just 72 appearances in whole career to date between United and his loans at Aston Villa.
If he is to establish himself as a top player, as his talent suggests he should be, and make good on all of that early potential, he has to start playing regularly and it has to be immediately. Yet with United bringing in Raphael Varane this summer to partner Maguire, pushing Lindelof down the pecking order, he will be at best fourth but probably fifth choice centre-back if he stays.
Tuanzebe has to get out on loan to play. There are rumours of interest from Villa again, where he would have to compete with established starters Tyrone Mings and Ezri Konsa, or alternatively Newcastle, which would mean reuniting with Steve Bruce, under whom he played at Villa.
A loan spell with regular Premier League football should give him the chance to prove himself at a good level, because the other thing to consider is the longer-term future. Tuanzebe’s contract at United expires at the end of next season, with an option to extend it to 2023, and a decision will have to be made from both sides whether a new deal beyond then is the right way to go.
For now, everything hinges on getting that all-important game time. But it will have to be somewhere else. Then, and only then, the future will become clearer.