A year is a very long time in football. It was just over 12 months ago, as Manchester United kicked off their pre-season tour in July 2019, that manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer remarked Axel Tuanzebe ‘is going to be the future of this club.’
The home-grown defender, who was previously the youngest captain of United’s Under-18 side since Gary Neville, was very much a part of the first-team picture when the season began for real.
With Eric Bailly injured, Chris Smalling gone and Phil Jones out of favour, Tuanzebe was Solskjaer’s first alternative to starting duo Harry Maguire and Victor Lindelof at the back.
He got his first start of the season when United faced Astana at home in the Europa League and was named in the XI for consecutive Premier League games against Arsenal and Newcastle as September became October. Those two appearances came a few days after he was even named as United captain for a Carabao Cup tie against home-town club Rochdale.
If Solskjaer’s words in the summer weren’t enough, it was abundantly clear how highly he thought of the youngster, whose association with United dates back to 2005.
But then the injuries struck. From starting consecutive Premier League games, Tuanzebe missed the next four with a hip problem. He also missed two Europa League fixtures he would likely have played in and was ruled out for a Carabao Cup clash with Chelsea.
When fit, Tuanzebe was back in the squad but it didn’t last. A hamstring injury picked up shortly before Christmas sidelined him for two months until late February. He returned to the bench for the wins against Manchester City and LASK immediately before the season was put on hold, only to then succumb to further problems that required foot surgery by the time action was resumed in June.
As things stand, and with United gunning for Europa League glory to underpin the relative success of a transitional season with a major trophy, Solskjaer doesn’t expect to see the player he happily pinned the future of the club on back on the pitch until the new season begins in September.
Having been on the fringes of the first-team as early as 2015, Tuanzebe’s ability has never been in doubt. But elite football waits for no man and he has lost an invaluable opportunity to make his mark in a season that was set up to be his breakout year.
Injury problems sadly aren’t new for Tuanzebe. Despite playing an active role in Aston Villa’s promotion back to the Premier League in 2018/19, a foot fracture in the middle of the campaign limited his involvement to just 25 appearances out of 46 in the league. When fit, he played.
Tuanzebe will be 23 in three months and is soon leaving the ‘young player with potential’ bracket, at which point he must prove himself (and his fitness) if he is to have a long-term future at United.
In terms of his contract, he still has time as his current deal runs until at least 2022. But the club cannot afford to bet solely on him eventually beating his fitness problems and coming good.
If the budget will allow it this summer, United are expected to be in the market for a new centre-back – an enquiry has been made about Inter’s Milan Skriniar, while the impressive Teden Mengi already offers fresh home-grown competition following his United debut this week.
When Tuanzebe returns to fitness at the start of next season, he will be playing for his future.