Axel Tuanzebe: I'm ready to play for Manchester United
The defender believes he is ready to make his mark at Old Trafford after impressing in Saturday's pre-season win over Inter Milan
Seventeen-year-old Mason Greenwood will again make headlines after his goal was the difference between Manchester United and Inter Milan in Saturday's International Champions Cup clash in Singapore.
The striker, who has been in form on the pre-season tour and will stay at Old Trafford this season rather than going on loan, took 16 minutes to do what his teammates had been trying for an hour before their mass substitution in humid conditions: he scored.
United have won all three tour games so far, with seven goals scored and none conceded. All have been scored or assisted by youth academy graduates.
Manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer maintains that Greenwood’s in contention to start for his team in the league and with each promising performance United will be less concerned if Romelu Lukaku joins Inter Milan, but Solskjaer must also make some big calls in defence.
Starting Axel Tuanzebe for United’s third pre-season game against a strong Inter was a sign that the Norwegian is serious about giving the 21-year-old, who has captained United at every age level except the first team, a chance.
Tuanzebe, who arrived in Greater Manchester from DR Congo at the age of four, is a fast central defender who can play as a right back too.
He wants to play football regularly and that meant doing it on loan at Aston Villa for the last two years – where he got better and better in a side that was promoted back to the Premier League in May.
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Nothing has changed in his mind, he wants to play for United and believes he is ready now. But there are six central defenders at Old Trafford and Solskjaer wants a seventh.
Harry Maguire wants to join United and they want him, but not for a fee which will make him the most expensive defender in history. Solskjaer is also aware that some hard to shift players need to be sold.
United require a settled defence after too many changes and too many goals conceded last term, yet the Norwegian also believes in promoting home-grown players, though Tuanzebe is hardly a callow youth.
“The manager puts faith in young players and I’m ready to play that. I got another 60 under my belt and I’m going to keep going," Tuanzebe told The National.
He performed well against Inter, wearing 38 and playing to the right of Victor Lindelof in central defence and to the left of new signing Aaron Wan Bissaka, who continues to look at home in the backline since arriving from Crystal Palace.
“He’s hard to go past and he’s going forward,” said Solskjaer of Wan Bissaka. “The kid is only 21 but he has a great chance.”
Tuanzebe is equally impressed with his new teammate.
“You can see why we paid so much money for him,” he said. “He’s a great defender player with great feet.
"He’s been solid, he’s been made welcome. He’s quiet but we'll get him out of his shell. We call him the spider because nobody can get past him.”
The average age of United’s defenders was 23 on Saturday.
Tuanzebe marked Samuele Longo in the clash at the National Stadium in Kallang. He intercepted and reacted well under pressure and to the humid conditions.
He supported attacks and faults were few and far between as United kept a third clean sheet in three games.
The 52,897 crowd – of which 95 per cent wore red – were encouraged by United’s first half performance as their fluid 4-2-3-1 system pressed high.
As in their previous two games, United spent most of their time in their opponents’ half.
Solskjaer knows he has doubters because of his inexperience and because he has taken the job at a difficult time in United’s history after so much success, but he is determined to play attacking football.
United scored eight times on their previous visit to Singapore in 2001 and played goalkeeper Fabien Barthez on the wing. That friendly against a local team did not matter, this one did.
United are coming off last season on a low, with fans frustrated by a disappointing end of season and only two signings so far.
A cloud of scepticism envelopes fans and that will only change with wins in competitive matches, but the players look fitter than a year ago and the mood in the camp is happier and the pre-season games more entertaining.
It is a fragile confidence which will be dented if United begin their Premier League campaign slowly.
But there are three more pre-season friendlies before that point. Three chances for the improvement to continue against Tottenham Hotspur in Shanghai, Kristiansund in Oslo and AC Milan in Cardiff.
All his players will continue to get chances – as they did after 60 minutes when the entire team was changed and Tuanzebe was replaced by Eric Bailly, who was excellent.
Solskjaer was impressed with Tuanzebe and has big aspirations for the player as he explained that he had been selected to play against Inter Milan to challenge him, rather then against Leeds United where he was already familiar with Championship-level football.
“Today was a test, we know he can play at that level (Championship) and that’s why he didn’t play against Leeds,” said Solskjaer.
“He’s showed he is very capable at this level. Axel is going to be the future of this club.”
Of his team, he said: “High energy, pressing, intensity,” said Solskjaer. “I’m very pleased, we have players to press on the front foot: Jesse, Marcus, Anthony. We’re looking strong as a defensive unit.”
Tuanzebe believes himself that he is well place to step up.
He said: “My season last year showed that I am a much better player than a year ago. Having a good coach to support me as a player and a person helped. I’m more mature, my decision making is better, my physicality, building myself in the game and being a senior player.”
“He did really well,” said former United defender Wes Brown. “I was really impressed by him. He won his one on one battles, he was calm in the air and he’s stepping up this year after a good year away last year.
"Axel is strong, he read the game well and he’s much better after playing after week at a big club like Aston Villa.”
“I’m ready to play for Manchester United – definitely,” concluded Tuanzebe as he headed for the team coach ahead of United’s match with Tottenham on Thursday.
Updated: July 20, 2019 07:43 PM