Among the reassuringly large number of young debutants to appear for the Reds recently, one name has been conspicuously absent: that of Axel Tuanzebe.
Winner of the Jimmy Murphy Young Player of the Year award last season, Tuanzebe made it onto the first-team bench earlier in this campaign. Still only eighteen, he would surely have made further appearances in the first team squad had an injury picked up in January not kept him out of action since then.
Because of that, the Congolese-born and Rochdale-raised defender has had to bide his time while watching Tim Fosu-Mensah, with whom he struck a formidable central defensive partnership in the youth team, make his first team debut, while an even younger player, Ro-Shaun Williams, has also made appearances on the bench of late.
Anyone familiar with his performances in the Under-18 and Under-21 teams will know, however, that Tuanzebe is a strong character who is unlikely to see the rise of other young players around him as anything other than a welcome challenge. He was the first first-year scholar since Gary Neville to be made captain of the youth team and, like Fosu-Mensah and Williams, made the early transition to the Under 21 team with ease and looked more than ready for a crack at the senior team when injury sadly held him back.
When he returns, he’ll no doubt add his name to the already pleasing number of teenage United defenders knocking on the door of the first eleven. While many United fans were disappointed when Van Gaal didn’t bring in an experienced central defender at the start of this season, it’s an exciting prospect to have so many young players in that position all blessed with pace and strength coming through the academy ranks at the same time.
To these attributes, Tuanzebe adds the kind of leadership and organisational qualities it’s taken Chris Smalling years to develop. It might be rash to predict that he might provide the Reds with their first Congolese-born captain one day, but the prospects of him featuring as part of a home-grown central defence partnership in the not too distant future look very good indeed.