There’s a realistic chance that many Italian football fans are not overly familiar with Axel Tuanzebe given he has only made fleeting appearances for Manchester United so far in his career.
Napoli came into the January transfer in dire need of defensive cover given Kalidou Koulibaly has suffered from injuries and COVID-19 this season and has departed to Cameroon to represent Senegal at the Africa Cup of Nations.
This leaves Juan Jesus and Amir Rrahmani as senior defenders before the drop-down to youth players is made. When Tuanzebe was named on the bench against Sampdoria on Sunday, he was the most senior central defender amongst the substitutes.
In terms of covering the squad during AFCON, it is also worth mentioning that Tuanzebe is adept at playing a defensive midfield role when called upon, potentially limiting the impact of losing Andre-Frank Zambo Anguissa who is part of the Cameroon squad.
? Axel has a message for Napoli fans!
— Official SSC Napoli (@en_sscnapoli) January 8, 2022
Why was Tuanzebe on the market?
In short, he’s now 24 years old and hasn’t been able to get regular football at Manchester United yet. That’s why he was loaned to Aston Villa at the start of the season.
He’s appeared nine times in the Premier League this season for Villa but the arrival of Steven Gerrard as coach partway through the campaign appears to have seen the Englishman fall down the pecking order. Which is why his agent was pushing for the move to Napoli, there is a clear opportunity for game time.
The agent in question, Tuanzebe’s brother, has suggested that Gerrard has not been picking his client due to the Liverpool-Manchester United rivalry. This is incredibly hard to believe and is hopefully an opinion that comes entirely from the agent, rather than the player himself.
Manchester United are taking something of a risk sending him on loan for the rest of the season given their defensive options are also limited. Almost the entire defence is out of form, Raphael Varane is struggling with injuries, as is Eric Bailly, who has also now gone to represent Ivory Coast at AFCON. Tuanzebe clearly wants to play, and Manchester United want him to play.
The loan fee that Napoli have paid is around €650,000 and there does not appear to be an option to buy the defender at the end of the season. Should he perform well though, it certainly would not be out of the question.
What path has Tuanzebe’s career taken?
Before discussing Tuanzebe’s exploits on the pitch, it is worth saying that he has had to work harder than most to get to where he is today. He was born in Bunia in the Democratic Republic of Congo and grew up in a house full of extended family and minimal opportunities.
His parents made the decision when he was young to take their children to England and give them a better chance in life. No one in the family spoke English when they settled in Rochdale, a town slightly north of Manchester. They could only speak Lingala.
A young Axel spent all of his time playing football with the local children, before being scouted by Manchester United when he was playing for his local team. He has been part of the United setup since 2014.
He was on the bench twice in the Premier League during the 2015/16 season, made five first-team appearances in 2016/17, and during the following season he appeared in the Champions League group stage once before starting his first of three loan spells at Aston Villa. He made five Championship appearances, playing as both a left-back and a right-back.
It was in the 2018/19 season at Aston Villa that he really matured as a footballer. He was instrumental in helping Villa get promoted back to the Premier League. He played the full match 22 times in that season. The only reason it wasn’t more is that he suffered a metatarsal fracture that kept him out from December to March. He became a fan-favourite at Villa Park.
That led United to keep him at the club for the next campaign, but a hip injury, a muscle strain, and a serious ankle injury meant he could feature just 11 times across all competitions that season. Tuanzebe does appear to be an injury-prone player which will have been a concern to Napoli.
The beginning of the following campaign brought Tuanzebe’s best moment in a Manchester United shirt. He was given a start in the Champions League group stage match away at Paris Saint Germain, tasked with containing Kylian Mbappe, Neymar, Angel Di Maria, and more. He was nothing short of sensational and was key to United winning the game 2-1.
Unfortunately, injuries and inconsistent performances meant he could not build on that wave of positivity. The rest of the season came and went, he joined Aston Villa yet again in the summer of 2021 and now finds himself in Naples hoping to win his first major piece of silverware.
Can Tuanzebe make a difference at Napoli?
There is an opportunity for Tuanzebe to put himself ahead of Juan Jesus and Rrahmani in the squad if he hits the ground running. He may need time to adjust to a brand new country and league, and that is time that really is not on his or Luciano Spalletti’s side.
Providing he is able to turn in good performances for the Partenopei in the final months of the campaign and remain fit, the major benefit he will bring to the side is versatility. As mentioned above, whilst a central defender by trade, Tuanzebe can play in the midfield if required, and he can also do a job in both full-back positions when called upon.
With more COVID-19 cases and injuries likely on the way for Spalletti to contend with, a player with that level of versatility could be extremely valuable. He is adept at playing out from the back and may encourage Napoli’s forwards to get wider given his diagonal passing from defence is impressive.
Tuanzebe may not be a major catalyst for change at Napoli, but he could quietly be a very astute piece of business from the Azzurri.
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