Louis van Gaal’s Manchester United reign may not be looked back on too fondly by now, but in years to come fans might well have to, at least partially, revise their opinion of the Dutchman. Yes, the former Netherlands boss did plenty wrong in his spell at Old Trafford and played some of the most tedious football those in the stands had seen for quite some time, but he did give youth a chance, and Axel Tuanzebe might well be the man to change the mood surrounding LVG.
The first academy star promoted to the senior team in Van Gaal’s final season in charge, the 19-year-old defender only made it as far as the substitutes’ bench for games at Crystal Palace and Bournemouth, but that may have had more to do with injury than talent, as his manager showed his willingness to go with the untested in the shape of other youngsters like Cameron Borthwick-Jackson and, most notably, Marcus Rashford. Having not been shipped out on loan to gain experience this term, it’s clear that Jose Mouinho and his staff are keeping an eye on the DR Congo-born star, who made his debut in the FA Cup vs. Wigan over the winter, which could be a good thing going forward.
A classy centre-back who’s able to operate as a deep-lying midfielder, Tuanzebe is very much a modern defender. Not a player to dive into challenges, instead relying on his reading of the game, there are natural comparisons with Rio Ferdinand, a player who was quite un-British in his approach to his position. Like the 81-cap former England international, the teenager is physically imposing and has the sort of pace that suggests he can cope with the way the game in this country has progressed. Interestingly, 6′ 1” Tuanzebe has spoken of his enjoyment at being a captain, claiming he likes “bossing people around”, hinting that he has the metal fortitude to step up over the coming years. So often young players are accused of being shrinking violets in the dressing room, but the former youth team skipper looks to be cut from a different cloth.
Perhaps the only worry is where his game time comes. His sole appearance so far against Wigan saw Tuanzebe make a 30-minute cameo at right-back when he came on for Timothy Fosu-Mensah, and it may be that he has to cut his teeth in a wide role. Given Mourinho’s tendency to keep things solid at the back, the Portuguese tactician rarely leans on young defenders, and the way Tomas Kalas disappeared at Chelsea after a fine debut in the infamous ‘Gerrard slip’ win at Anfield is a cause for concern. Perhaps a loan spell for the 2017/18 season makes sense, with his potential sure to attract Championship and lower end Premier League teams.
Tuanzebe certainly has time on his side, though, and although the opportunities haven’t come just yet, they are sure to soon. Louis van Gaal’s legacy may well have a few positives, it seems.