“To put up a performance like this against Neymar and Mbappé, I have to say he almost surprised us as well,” admitted Ole Gunnar Solskjaer.
The Manchester United manager spent his post-match media duties lavishing praise of practically every single one of his players after yet another famous Champions League win away to Paris Saint-Germain, though one was getting more attention than any other.
It was the one whose individual performance embodied a controlled, composed and team display; the one who played so well despite making his first appearance of any sort since last December; the one who perfectly executed a recovery tackle inside his own penalty area to take the ball from Kylian Mbappé. Twice.
Axel Tuanzebe was “tremendous” at the Parc des Princes according to his manager. Solskjaer had trusted the 22-year-old academy graduate to fill in for injured captain Harry Maguire despite Tuanzebe himself only just recovering from a year blighted by hip and foot problems, and on the back of just two weeks’ worth of training.
“He's been out for - the last game against Colchester, 10 months or something,” Solskjaer pointed out.
David de Gea was just as impressed as his manager. “To be honest, he has been unbelievable today,” the United goalkeeper said, but he also referenced Tuanzebe’s struggles over the past year. “He’s had difficult moments with the injuries. Now he showed today that he is capable of playing big games.”
That is why Tuanzebe’s performance in Tuesday night’s Group H opener caught even his own manager and team-mates off-guard.
Then again, perhaps it shouldn’t come as much of a surprise at all.
The current United management’s faith in Tuanzebe has been apparent ever since the warm-up before an EFL Cup third round tie last year, when Mike Phelan took him to one side and said he would wear the armband that evening.
Tuanzebe led out United team-mates of much greater experience that night - Phil Jones, Jesse Lingard and former vice-captain Paul Pogba, no less - but Solskjaer wanted to prove to the young centre-half that he was part of his long-term vision.
It was a particularly special moment for two reasons. For starters, Tuanzebe had already captained United at every age group through the academy ranks. This completed the set. Secondly, he was playing against Rochdale - his hometown club, having moved there from the Democratic Republic of Congo as a young child.
Tuanzebe was spotted by United scouts while playing youth amateur football in the foothills of the Pennines.
You can still read a Manchester Evening News report, dated August 2007, which describes a nine-year-old Tuanzebe’s “solid defensive display” for his local club Pearson’s Celtic. Articles detailing his latest man-of-the-match performance in Paris sat alongside top of the local paper’s ‘Most Read’ sidebar on Wednesday morning.
While the young Tuanzebe’s maturity is reflected in that proud record of captaining every age group, once part of United’s youth set-up, his ability to read and anticipate is said to have stood out above all else. To outsiders, his potential was clear when he was included in a Premier League matchday squad by Louis van Gaal for a trip to Crystal Palace at just 17-years-old.
A full senior debut came the following season under Jose Mourinho and - nearly four years later - Tuanzebe may have expected to be a regular by now. Instead, he has had to wait patiently for his opportunities.
A proper first-team breakthrough appeared to be around the corner during Mourinho’s second season, only to be put on hold by a 18-month loan spell at Aston Villa. There, he eventually formed a formidable centre-back partnership with Tyrone Mings which would propel Dean Smith’s side to the Premier League via the play-offs.
Solskjaer made sure that he would not be leaving on loan again after that and began handing him first-team opportunities around this time last year. The United manager even trusted Tuanzebe enough to select him for last season’s 1-1 draw with Liverpool at Old Trafford but he pulled out during the warm-up with the hip complaint which would spark his recent fitness struggles.
Before Tuesday night, Tuanzebe had only 18 United appearances to his name. His greatest achievement as a senior United player arguably still came on the 2018 pre-season tour, when he set a Guinness World Record by taking just 17.36 seconds to win a game of Hungry Hungry Hippos.
Last night was Tuanzebe’s opportunity to finally change all that, to prove himself against elite opposition, and to establish himself as a United player. It has been a long time coming but, considering how highly-regarded he is within the club, it should be no surprise that he took it.
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