Premier League 2018/19 Tactical Analysis: Axel Tuanzebe at Manchester United
Artwork by @chapulana

Axel Tuanzebe has made 15 appearances for the first team at Manchester United since making his debut in 2017, but has played at centre-back on just three occasions.

The 22-year-old spent last season on loan at Aston Villa, and established himself as a regular in the centre of their defence after some stellar performances.

Despite his form for Villa, he has had limited chances to play in his favoured position for United this season.

He was used as a left-back against Rochdale in the league cup, and was played in the same position in a draw with Arsenal in the Premier League, before a hip injury kept him out the squad for nearly a month.

Upon his return to fitness though he was given his opportunity at centre-back, as he played 90 minutes in the heart of United’s defence against Astana in the Europa League.

Despite the disappointing result, Tuanzebe looked a class above the range of fresh talent on show in Kazakhstan, and was easily United’s best defender on the night.

During his injury lay-off, United have been far from convincing at the back – Solskjaer’s side haven’t kept a clean sheet in the league since the 1-0 win over Leicester City in September.

And after Sunday’s 2-2 draw with Aston Villa, the Red Devils have conceded five goals in two games against newly-promoted teams.

Victor Lindelof partnered summer-signing Harry Maguire at centre-back against Villa, as he has done for the majority of this season, and although he has been far from United’s worst player this campaign, it may be time for him to step aside for the more physical Tuanzebe.

The Swede has been a decent defender during his time at Old Trafford – but ‘decent’ is not enough for a Manchester United centre-back.

The issue with Lindelof is that he doesn’t seem to excel at anything – he is fairly quick, while not ‘rapid’; he is good in the air, but someone like Maguire is far superior; and even though he has been nicknamed the ‘Iceman’ by United fans he is certainly not immune to a mistake.

In the 1-1 draw with Liverpool earlier this season, Lindelof was spared his blushes as Sadio Mane outmuscled him to score – the goal was eventually disallowed by VAR, but the incident highlighted the lack of assertiveness that has haunted the former Benfica man during his time at United.

With Lindelof so distinctively average, it may be time for Tuanzebe to be given a chance to partner Maguire in the centre of United’s defence.

Tuanzebe’s physicality could perfectly compliment the £80million man – while Maguire isn’t blessed with pace, the DR Congo-born defender is renowned for his blistering speed.

More importantly, Tuanzebe is tough in the tackle and is very rarely shrugged off the ball, while his athleticism makes him difficult to beat in the air – something that cannot be said of Lindelof.

Tuanzebe is just as comfortable in possession as Lindelof too, and was regularly praised for his effectiveness at bringing the ball out of defence during his time on loan in the Championship.

With United so poor defensively at the moment, it seems to be a no-brainer for Solskjaer to experiment with his back four and give Tuanzebe an extended run in his best position.

He did play for 90 minutes at centre-back in the 1-0 loss to Newcastle prior to his injury, and despite the scoreline, he hardly put a foot wrong.

Because of the hip problem, it remains to be seen whether Solskjaer intended to play him regularly – the coming weeks should reveal how much faith the Norweigan has in the United academy graduate.

Tuanzebe’s form at Aston Villa is testament to how a young defender can benefit from playing week in, week out, and with Lindelof’s growth seemingly stagnating, there will be few better times to give him a chance – United’s defence surely can’t get any worse with his inclusion.

The worry is though that Tuanzebe will once again be played out of position – Brandon Williams has been great going forward since making his United debut, but question marks over his defensive capabilities were highlighted in the draw with Villa.

With that being said, Solskjaer may be tempted to play Tuanzebe in the left-back position again as he looks to steady his shaky defence.

If he does take a gamble on Tuanzebe though, it could be the beginning of a formidable partnership between him and Maguire.

A domineering defender like Tuanzebe is a much more daunting prospect for an attacker than a timid one like Lindelof.