Tactical Analysis: Axel Tuanzebe is an old school defender but he's playing in 2021

Modern football requires defenders to do more than 'just defend,' and Axel Tuanzebe is struggling in those other areas

For the past two seasons Manchester United have boasted a good but imperfect centerback partnership between Harry Maguire and Victor Lindelof. Maguire is big, good in the air, but lacks pace. Lindelof is more athletic but can get physically overmatched in the Premier League.

The two are far better than most fans give them credit for. United do a good job hiding their weaknesses but every so often one leads to a ball ending up in the back of the net. That’s lead many to hoping that the club looks for a new centerback to partner Maguire, with many looking internally at 23 year old academy graduate Axel Tuanzebe.

In theory, Tuanzebe fits the profile of the ideal partner for Maguire. First and foremost he’s an academy graduate and United fans love nothing more than seeing their academy players break into the first team. Physically he’s bigger than Lindelof which comes in handy in the physical battles and winning headers.

He blocks a lot of shots, he’s got pace to help out Maguire, and he’s got the agility to deal with quick pacy strikers.

Defensively, there’s not much Tuanzebe can’t do. He’s an old school centerback and fans love him for that.

Unfortunately for him, being old school is the biggest thing preventing him from getting more opportunities. It’s currently his biggest problem.


25 years ago the job of a defender was simple. Defend.

That was it. The opposition attacked, you defended, and then you did it all over again. These days it’s a different story. Defenders need to be able to play with the ball, they need to be able to stay calm and protect the ball. They need to be able to pass the ball up the field.

There’s two reasons for this. The first is, the opposition can’t score if they don’t have the ball. If they attack and you just hoof it down field right back to them, you’re just allowing them to attack again. The other is in modern football your attacks start from the back. If your defenders can’t pass the ball through the lines, you’re not going to be that successful.

This is what Harry Maguire excels at. It’s not just his passing but his ability when winning the ball back to not just hoof it clear and play safety first, but rather stay composed, bring the ball under control and look to play out. A situation like this Maguire would bring under control, Lindelof would probably simply touch it back to De Gea, Axel plays safety first and hits it out for a throw, which just gives the ball back to Leicester.

To fans this looks like great defense. To managers it doesn’t. They only want you to hoof it out as an absolute last resort. Yes if you get caught on the ball here the results would probably be disastrous, but good defenders rarely get caught on the ball here. Tuanzebe has multiple options here but doesn’t take them. Sure he’s young and still learning, but this is paramount to United’s entire system. If you’re not playing out from the back the rest of the system doesn’t work, so when the manager sees you not doing it, he’s less likely to trust putting you on the pitch.

On the flip side, Tuanzebe looked great in the second half against Leicester. Mainly because Leicester started attacking and he was able to keep defending.

Another play that looks great to fans, but just allows Leicester to keep attacking. The Foxes upped the pressure in the first 20 minutes after the restart attacking in wave after wave until taking their foot off the gas after going ahead. United only had 36 percent of the possession over those 20 minutes and could never alleviate that pressure.

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On Tuesday night, United had 53 percent of the possession. They turned that possession into a grand total of four shots with an xG of 0.4.1 That’s simply not good enough. A large part of that is because 43 percent of their touches came in their own third, well above United’s season average of 30.25%. All those touches meant that United’s defenders were doing the bulk of the ball handling with the back four as a unit taking a whopping 46.53 percent of United’s total touches.2

What happened? No one wanted to pass forward. United essentially spent the match against Leicester passing around the back four until finally someone would hoof it long in hopes that 5’6 Amad Diallo could win the ball.

That’s not really a great strategy. When you have forwards like Amad, Mason Greenwood, Marcus Rashford, Anthony Martial, and even Bruno Fernandes - players who aren’t good in the air - you have to be able to play out from the back.

Tuesday night wasn’t all down to Tuanzebe, there were four players in that back four and they all played equally poorly, but it is a problem that keeps occurring every time he plays. Rising through the youth levels Tuanzebe had a reputation as being really good on the ball, so much so that two different managers have played him as a defensive midfielder.3 However when he’s started as a centerback this season his passing has really let him down.

As a centerback, Axel is naturally going to have a very high pass success rate since most of his passes are going to the fullbacks, the other centerback, or to the goalkeeper.

What he needs to do is pass vertically up the pitch. I’m not necessarily talking about progressive passes, just simply trying to pass forward. You need verticality from your centerbacks especially if you lack it in midfield, which you certainly do when playing Nemanja Matic and Donny van de Beek there.4

Against Leicester, Tuanzebe attempted 73 passes but only 44 (60.27%) of those attempted passes were forwards.5 That is just awful, especially when you factor in that as a centerback, the whole pitch is in front of you. To compare that to United’s usual centerbacks, 82.89 percent of Lindelof’s attempted passes are forwards with Maguire coming in at 76.43. As a pair 79.09 percent of their passes are forwards despite their average touch location being higher up the field than Tuanzebe’s.

The argument that this is simply the result of not playing next to the first choice players certainly holds some weight. Matic was dropping into the back line constantly whilst Van de Beek, Mata, Elanga, and Amad weren’t doing the best of jobs of getting themselves open. Unfortunately though, this wasn’t just a one off. Take a look at all the matches that Tuanzebe has played at least 45 minutes at centerback this season and compare his numbers to his partner in that match.6

Other than Watford he’s significantly behind his partner in each match not just in forward passes but attempted passes in general. Considering his defensive numbers are good, it’s a sign that he’s doing more ‘just clearing out of danger’ than settling the ball down, passing and keeping possession. It’s not unrelated that United’s attack struggled in these matches.7

This was Tuanzebe’s first league start since the home loss to Sheffield United and it’s interesting because there are a lot of similarities between that game and the match against Leicester starting with how many touches the back four took. This is even noticeable on the chart above given the absurd of passes both Maguire and Axel attempted in that match.

The back four taking 46.53 percent of United’s total touches against Leicester is the team’s highest total since the Sheffield United match where they took 47.76 percent of United’s total touches. In that match each of United’s defenders finished with over 100 touches individually.8 The saving grace in that was that 19.24 percent of the back four’s touches were made by the fullbacks in the final third. Compare the numbers from those two games with the numbers from United’s last five matches (which are right in line with their season averages).

The back four typically takes around 40 percent of United’s touches with about 20 percent coming from the fullbacks in the final third, aka they’re at least moving up the pitch.

Two games is far from a large enough sample size to draw any conclusions from9 but with the numbers being this stark it is enough to make you say “hmm, we should keep an eye on this.” Once again, this isn’t to say that this is all Axel Tuanzebe’s fault, but it does go to show you how much of an effect one weak link can have on playing out from the back.

It changes the entire dynamic of the team. Against Sheffield United Tuanzebe’s two most common passes were to Maguire and Wan-Bissaka, the two players playing next to him. If the defense doesn’t see you as a passing threat, they can focus on pressuring the other ones which just puts more pressure on Maguire.

This season United average an xG of 1.62 per game in the Premier League, 1.68 in the Champions League, and 1.65 in the Europa League.10 There’s plenty of other factors at play as well but it’s probably not a coincidence that in games/halves Tuanzebe has played that xG drops to 1.02 per 90. Just taking out one passer from the back can have a large effect.

Vertical passing hasn’t always plagued Axel. The above chart shows he’s had some games where the number is right where it should be, and if we look at what he did last season (when playing as a CB not a FB) he was much better at it as well. However, a closer look at who the opponents were every time that number gets above 70 percent is unfortunately revealing.

All those games came against clubs that are either a level or two down from the Premier League or in the Europa League. This suggests there may be a level here. If he needs to play against poor teams for him to be confident passing, then he may not be at the level to play for Manchester United.

That’s fine, most academy kids don’t make it at all and you can still go on to have a great career with a smaller Premier League club that asks their defenders to do more defending than passing.

United fans love Axel and we know when fans like particular players they’re ready to make tons of excuses for them. The most popular of them all is “he’s better in a back three,” as that’s where he played against PSG. Bringing up the back three is a nice buzzword but doesn’t acknowledge the fact that when United’s ‘back three’ is really mostly a back four but with an extra left back playing as the left wing. Look at the average positions of everyone in the aforementioned match against PSG.

That’s looks an awful lot like a standard back four.

The other popular trope is that he just needs a run of games to be at his best. Axel’s best game in the past two years was against PSG when he hadn’t played in 10 months. Can’t exactly say he “needs” it now can we? Would he benefit from a run of games? Of course, but who wouldn’t?

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If this was 2002 Axel Tuanzebe would walk into the starting XI of Manchester United or any top club in England. But in 2021 defenders have to do more than just defend. Tuanzebe hasn’t shown he can do that against quality opponents which explains why he hasn’t been getting more opportunities this season.

If he doesn’t improve his ability on the ball this summer, it’s hard to see him getting any more playing time next season than he did this season.

1

Per Fbref. InfoGol/FotMob had them at 0.23 while understat had them at 0.22

2

United’s average for the season is around 38%

3

Though there’s a difference between ‘playing defensive midfield’ and ‘playing defensive midfield well’

4

When playing in the pivot only 53% of Van de Beek’s passes are forwards. BY FAR the lowest among United’s midfielders (McTominay is next at 64.59% with Pogba and Fred at 65%)

5

Bailly was 67.61% which is also low but his average is typically in the high 70’s

6

Istanbul (H) Lindelof started next to Maguire and Tuanzebe replaced him at halftime

7

United scored three times in the first half against Istanbul while Lindelof was on the pitch

8

Shaw replaced Telles in that match and the two combined for 100 touches (Telles 75, Shaw 25)

9

Against Granada the back four took 39% of the touches but only 12% of those came from the fullbacks in the final third. Gaining territory is important

10

This is remarkably consistent