Debuts for any athlete can come with a vast volume of pressure and responsibility, especially when it comes to one of the biggest teams in the world. First impressions are everything, and an impressive one was defiantly left by 19 year old Axel Tuanzebe.
Although it wasn’t the first time the Red Devil fans have seen Tuanzebe in action, it was his first appearance and full 90 minutes in the Premier League, as well as, his first time playing at right back instead of centre back. Against an up and down Arsenal side and in a time where Manchester United’s priorities are clear on winning the Europa League, it was a mere perfect day to play the youngster.
Reading of play
Playing as a right back was a foreign concept for Tuanzebe, but he did a notable job at many of the key duties of the position. He took no hesitation in initiating a switch of play, the build-up of play, or the attack itself. Starting many runs himself by calling for the ball and spotting runs to commence an attack from the flank.
In this series of images, a prime example of Axel reading the play intelligently is displayed. As Wanye Rooney compresses the space towards the sideline, he passes to Tuanzebe and makes a run up the flank. From there we see Juan Mata making his way at Tuanzebe for a quick give and go. As Mata is about to give the ball back to him, Tuanzebe takes backwards steps, creating space for himself and calls for the ball when in a more open area.
As an Arsenal defender begins to press, the fullback makes a quick turn with the ball and uses his speed, seeing an opportunity to make a run up the flank. In the likes of his teammate, Antonio Valencia, Axel can be used to his best ability as a space maker for quick, easy passes from his peers or for the sake of making quick runs himself.
Building the attack or reading the play, both have key a component in common; distribution. A factor that Tuanzebe demonstrated extremely well. With an overall passing accuracy of 81% and a total of 42 passes, it was clear that the youngster played a key part in the foundation of attack.
Here at hand, is a fabulous delivery shown by Tuanzebe on multiple occasions. Tuanzebe used his distribution very wisely, only passing the ball once he foresaw an applicable opportunity. Many occurrences were in the likes of Anthony Martial, when it came to quick overturning of the ball and switching the play towards the opponents half. This allowed the use of Martial’s bursts of speed at it’s full potential. In other times, his distribution of the ball was used as a way to create space or pull off Arsenal defenders allowing other United players to get/remain open.
Although attempts at making plays or creating opportunities wasn’t always finished by his teammates, Tuanzebe’s effort never dissipated, resulting in complete trust and gratefulness from his teammates and manager, Jose Mourinho.
Strength and dispossession
As a defender, strength comes into play tremendously. Against Arsenal, Axel Tuanzebe held down his side from any opposing threat. That threat being one of the Premier League’s most dangerous players since arriving in 2014, Alexis Sanchez. Tuanzebe not only man marked Sanchez, but made him almost of no use throughout the entire 90 minutes.
In both sequences, Tuanzebe is seen dispossessing Sanchez in the exact same spot, almost the exact same way. Multiple times, he was able to use his strength to his greatest advantage over a shorter, stockier opponent. He had managed to stay goal side to Sanchez down the flank, then taking the opportunity to get his body out either in front of or beside Sanchez, playing down to his size. From there, Tuanzebe would take a touch on the ball, allowing him to obtain back possession in his own final third, where he seemed comfortable. Once Alexis Sanchez knew he couldn’t get past the young fullback, he slowly stopped taking as many chances along his left side, practically shutting down his usual attacking drive. Throughout the game, Sanchez could not get himself involved in either of the goal scoring plays, or any other build up prior to or after the fact.
For such a young player, Axel Tuanzebe showed he is ready for the big stage. Playing out of his natural position, he displayed he could be put anywhere on the back line and use the knowledge he has already gained to his advantage. Shutting down the biggest threat, or helping out in the build up of attack, he impressed fans and players a like, giving hope to what sometimes looks like a shaky United future. With such a composed, intelligent and reactive nature, what has yet to come of Manchester United’s defense is so bright.