Axel Tuanzebe has been waiting in the wings for a little too long now. It is time for the defender to stake his claim to enter the battle for a centre-back spot in Manchester United’s first team.
Tuanzebe is likely to get a chance this weekend when United host Watford in the FA Cup.
He is the only certain starter at the back with United likely to rotate, with the matter of his partner to be determined.
Tuanzebe needs to step up. He showed in the away win over PSG that he is capable of playing against the world’s best strikers and keeping them quiet.
His follow-up performance away at Istanbul is best forgotten, serving only to highlight that there will be some inconsistency in a player who started just three matches in total in 2020.
The third game he played saw him fill in at right-back in the Carabao Cup quarter-final. He did pretty well, and while it is possible he could play here against Watford, this seems like a waste of his talent.
Can he get into the mix?
Tuanzebe has been overtaken by Eric Bailly in the first team pecking order, and the Ivorian is now mounting a case to be among United’s top two centre-backs.
While this makes the task harder for Tuanzebe, it should also inspire the 23-year-old.
All he should worry about is himself. If he seizes his opportunity against Watford, and any more forthcoming ones, he will begin to mount his case.
It will just take an injury or suspension to open up a chance for Tuanzebe, as it did in Paris. But what he really needs to do is to convince Solskjaer that he should be called upon to replace one of his more trusted players when they are fatigued.
Solskjaer is reluctant to change his centre-backs if he can avoid it. The United boss believes in consistency, yet this is a double-edged sword as it creates problems amid a busy schedule, with Lindelof and Maguire among the players in global football who racked up the most minutes in 2020.
Tuanzebe needs to prove to Solskjaer that he should be promoted ahead of Maguire or Lindelof if one of them is feeling at 75 per cent or less, rather than the manager playing them through their fatigue anyway.
A strong FA Cup performance this weekend could also open up the possibility of a start in the Europa League against Real Sociedad for Tuanzebe. While United have little to lose by starting him, he also needs to earn it.
Time to try something different
Another semi-final defeat suffered with the pairing of Victor Lindelof and Harry Maguire in midweek highlighted that perhaps, it is time to try something different.
Eric Bailly was unlucky not to play in that game, and he will be pushing to earn a starting spot for the next ‘big match’ United have away at Liverpool.
Tuanzebe can be part of a solution too for big matches later in the season if he can grab his opportunity now.
He showed against PSG that he is capable of being an outstanding, dominant central defender. It was a the performance of a player who was far too good to be a fourth choice player.
Tuanzebe faces a crucial year in which he will hope to deliver, and save United spending millions on another centre-back. His journey in doing so is likely to begin this weekend.
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