Captaining Manchester United is a privilege not afforded to many. Doing that as an academy prospect is sweeter still. Doing it at all levels of United, from the youth age groups, all the way to the senior team is an insane accomplishment which would make one think that the player in question is a world-class talent.
Unfortunately, only the former part of that statement is true in the case of Axel Tuanzebe.
Tuanzebe leaves United after the expiry of his contract on June 30th. With that, the curtain comes down on the United career of a player who was once marked as a future captain and stalwart of the club.
His is a career of unfulfilled potential and a tale of how many things need to go right for a young player to make their breakthrough.
The centre back joined United at the age of just eight. From then, he bossed the youth football scene. It seemed like Tuanzebe was breaking a new record every day. He became the first first-year scholar to captain United U18s since Gary Neville. He won both, the Jimmy Murphy Young Player of the Year award and Denzil Haroun Reserve Team Player of the Year. He captained the U18s and the U23s. By the age of 17, he was already making the bench for the first team.
He made his first-team debut in 2017, against Wigan Athletic in an FA Cup tie. He won the Denzil Haroun Award in the same year.
Tuanzebe was already outgrowing reserve team football at the age of 19. For context, Zidane Iqbal has just left United at the age of 20 after making a single cameo appearance for the senior side.
Such was his talent that in the 2019-20 season, he became Manchester United’s youngest captain when he led the team against Rochdale in EFL Cup since Normal Whiteside in 1985.
In between, there was a fruitful loan spell at Aston Villa where he became a crowd favourite, helping the Villans to achieve promotion to the Premier League in 2019.
It is never a good sign if you can count on one hand the number of memorable matches of a player. For Tuanzebe, outside of his captaincy debut, the game away to Paris Saint-Germain is etched in fans’ minds.
The date was October 20, 2020. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s United were travelling to face PSG on the first matchday of the Champions League.
They were missing their ever-present captain Harry Maguire. In his place came in Tuanzebe from the cold, playing his first game after nearly 10 months.
The assignment was arguably world football’s toughest – stopping Kylian Mbappe and Neymar in their tracks.
In a performance that surprised even the manager, Tuanzebe completely shackled Mbappe and Co, memorably making two recovery tackles in his own box to steal the ball away from the lightening fast Frenchman.
Tuanzebe had finally arrived. All those setbacks of injury had finally given way to a performance for the ages.
Unfortunately, in a cruel twist of fate, that wasn’t the start of something great, it was the peak of a career that went only in one direction afterwards.
Niggling injuries never really allowed Tuanzebe to have a sustained run in the first team, with the more reliable Maguire preferred by the manager regardless.
At the start of the 2021/22 season, he was loaned to Villa again in the hope that a return to familiar surroundings helps him find his feet again.
After 11 uninspiring appearances, he was called back and sent on loan to Napoli in Serie A. The injury bug struck again, as he missed a month and made just two appearances.
A career drifting nowhere went into last chance saloon with a loan to Stoke City for the 2022/23 season but the player looked like a shell of his former self.
With his contract expiring at the end of the 2022/23 season, the club decided to finally cut the cord.
Tuanzebe will now hope to resurrect a floundering career that promised so much.
For United, it remains a tale of unfulfilled potential, made all the more painful considering they are in the market for a centre-back having deemed Maguire dispensable.
The talent was there, it just wasn’t meant to be.
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