Manchester United may not be the same force they once were under the irreplaceable titan Sir Alex Ferguson, but one thing that will always remain unhinged is the production line of youngsters coming through the doors of Old Trafford.
Whilst England duo Marcus Rashford and Jesse Lingard currently face the ever-increasing pressure cooker at the Theatre of Dreams, another up and coming rising star in Axel Tuanzebe is beginning to make a name for himself in the Championship at Aston Villa.
Proper Position = Proper Results
A centre-back by trade, Tuanzebe has played six consecutive games at the heart of Villa’s defence in recent weeks after initially being played out of position by the now-sacked Steve Bruce.
The arrival of the more forward-thinking Dean Smith is beginning to bring the best out of Villa’s loan star, who is thriving in the club’s new attacking and possession-based system.
As you can see from the image below the next paragraph, the 20-year-old has made an average of 1.1 tackles per game this term. By contrast, his defensive partner James Chester, who outperformed John Terry in the Championship last season, has made just an average of 0.9 tackles per game. The centre-back who tops the ‘average tackles per game’ list in the second tier of English football this season (min 10 games played) is Derby County’s Fikayo Tomori. The on-loan Chelsea man has made an impressive 2.1 tackles per game for Frank Lampard’s side as they battle for promotion alongside Villa.
Another area where Tuanzebe beats his centre-back partner this season is average interceptions per game. The United academy product has made 1.1 interceptions per game compared to Chester’s 0.9. Surprisingly, Stoke City’s Ashley Williams (min 10 matches) tops the average interceptions list so far this campaign, with 2.7.
More than just a physical presence
There is no doubt that Tuanzebe has the build, athleticism, pace, and power to succeed in the game. However, you have to back that up with technical ability, concentration levels, and a footballing brain. All three qualities which the DR Congo-born player is showing since being moved into his natural position.
This is illustrated in the two images below. During Villa’s home game against Bolton on Friday night, a ball is played over the top to the visitor’s striker Christian Doidge. As he has done throughout this match, Tuanzebe reads the situation exceptionally well, gets across the powerful forward and helps Villa regain possession.
Then, as Villa begin to defend deep into their own penalty area, aiming to secure only their third clean sheet in 16 league matches, Tuanzebe, once again, positions himself perfectly, puts his body on the line and prevents Lloyd Dyer’s shot from going on target. If the former Burton man had got his shot on target then it would have certainly been a goal and a nervous ending for the home side. There have been six goals in the last 10 minutes at Villa Park this season.
Below, are more examples of Tuanzebe’s brilliant reading of the game and subsequent ability to deal with the danger.
More than just a defender
In today’s modern game, there is a need for defenders to do more than just defend their goal. They are required to power up and down the flanks, bring the ball out from the back or have the ability to play a pass like their fellow midfielders.
Under Smith’s stewardship, Tuanzebe is being asked to showcase more ability on the ball and the highly-rated youngster isn’t disappointing. In the four matches Smith has been in charge of Villa, unsurprisingly, Tuanzebe has, for the majority, made more passes than any other of his previous games under Bruce (aside from the home clash against Reading). Not only is the United man making more passes, but his accuracy is improving by some distance.
In the first image below, you can see the total amount of passes he has made this term, both as a right-back and a centre-back. And you will notice the increase in numbers from the Swansea game onwards (when Smith took charge).
Added with that, below is the total amount of passes Tuanzebe made during Villa’s 2-0 win over Bolton on Friday night. Out of the 69 passes attempted, only six of them were unsuccessful, and most importantly, he completed the most passes than anyone else on the pitch.
At this moment in time, Villa sit in the bottom half of the Championship table. Even with their poor start to the campaign, the club’s aim is still promotion to the Premier League. Added with the pressure and high level of expectations at the club, manager Dean Smith is trying to change the club’s style of play from a robust defensive-minded unit to an attacking and more possession-based outfit.
Amongst all this, Tuanzebe is, at this moment, benefiting from this change. Not only is he showing that he is man made for this style of football, but he is proving that he can be that ball-playing centre-back Villa are craving. He will have his ups and downs this season, but there is no doubt that he has a bright future in the game. With the defensive troubles at Old Trafford, expect to see him being part of United’s defence next season in some capacity, at the very least.