Manchester United’s Axel Tuanzebe should be a regular by now.
At 23, the centre-back should have far more than 31 senior appearances for the Red Devils. Unfortunately, a series of injuries have robbed Tuanzebe of the chance to build on his impressive loan spell back in 2018.
Hip, thigh and ankle injuries meant Tuanzebe managed just 10 United games last season. This time around he has fared better. But 510 minutes across 13 appearances is less than he would have hoped for. It is also considerably less than his talent deserves.
The problem is, United boss Ole Gunnar Solskjaer does not seem to trust Tuanzebe to develop a partnership with any of his fellow centre-backs yet.
Harry Maguire is seemingly un-droppable, Eric Bailly remains injury-prone, and Victor Lindelof plays week in, week out almost by default.
That leaves Tuanzebe to fight for his chances. Yet the impressive loan spells of two fellow United prospects could be bad news for the 23-year-old.
Di’Shon Bernard has blossomed during a temporary spell at Salford City. So far he has featured 17 times for the League Two club, impressing in the centre having initially started on the right.
It is not only at the back where the 20-year-old has shone. Bernard also has two goals and two assists to his name, proving he can be effective at both ends of the field.
Bernard was ready for the step up after impressing regularly for United’s U23s and U18s.
After debuting for the Red Devils in the Europa League last season, Bernard will hope to return to Old Trafford ready for more chances. And his Salford stint could not be going much better.
Three into one
Then there is Teden Mengi. The 18-year-old is widely regarded as one of United’s best young defenders and he is now plying his trade under Wayne Rooney at Derby.
In a situation that mirrors Bernard’s, Mengi’s first loan outing was at right-back before he started the next game in the centre.
The United teenager impressed in that clash and he too will head back to United this summer ready to stake his claim.
And that is where the issue with Tuanzebe comes in. By now, he really should be out of sight in terms of competition with the next generation. But things have not worked out that way.
The 23-year-old could yet prove his worth and keep his younger teammates on the periphery. Then again, those loan spells could be the catalyst that push at least one of them ahead in the race for a United starting spot.