Breaking into the first team at a club the size of Manchester United can be a marathon and not a sprint – but after his performance against Paris Saint-Germain on Tuesday night, it’s clear that Axel Tuanzebe possesses the pace to make up for lost time.
In his first run-out in 10 months, Tuanzebe kept one of the most feared strike forces in world football quiet and played a critical role in what may prove to be a season-defining victory for Ole Gunnar-Solskjaer’s side.
The prospect of facing Neymar and Kylian Mbappe is the kind of stuff to give defenders nightmares but Tuanzebe marshalled the pairing so supremely that it was the Frenchman and his Braziian team-mate who would have endured a sleepless night in Paris following the match.
And what better city for those watching on from home to fall in love with a product from the club’s long-fabled youth system.
The sight of Tuanzebe leaving opponents for dead with his pace is nothing new to Paul McGuinness, the former head coach of the Manchester United academy and a man who regularly witnessed post-training sprint races that wouldn’t have looked out of place in the Diamond League.
“(Marcus) Rashford was in that age group as well and I’d never tell them to do it, but after training they would have races,” says McGuinness, whose father Wilf succeeded Sir Matt Busby as manager back in 1969.
“They would do it amongst themselves, they would challenge each other. Axel, Marcus and Ro-Shaun Williams would race the length of the pitch. I wouldn’t stop them, they would just do it for fun. I thought it was fantastic – and it was always very close as well.
“If they’ve got talent, the right attitude and the athleticism as well, then they’ve got a real chance.”
Tuanzebe and Rashford were in good company given that Williams – now at Shrewsbury – had already beaten Darren Campbell’s 100-metre schoolboy record.
His speed apart, after making his debut as far back as January 2017, Tuanzebe could have been forgiven for thinking that he would have played a far greater role for his club than the bit-part cameos he has so far been restricted to.
His performance against PSG, though, suggested that there is plenty more to come. And with Eric Bailly likely to be out of action until after the international break there’s a window for Tuanzebe to build on that performance in the French capital and cement his place in this United side.
For the winner of the prestigious Jimmy Murphy award back in 2014/15, the stage is apparently set for him to deliver on the potential which was clear to see as soon as he made his breakthrough into the United youth set-up.
“He just needs a run of games, really,” says McGuinness. “With every team as he came up he always did the right thing. He stood out as being very mature. We would always push him. In his first year with the youth team I made him captain because I just felt that he would be a captain ultimately and he may as well get the practice now.
“He was always going to be a leader at every point in his career so it was always our thinking that we would build that up to be a bigger asset. That was a real strength, there was always a sense that he would do the right thing and be a great example. You saw that off the pitch but on it, you could see it too. He was very quick, very athletic and very good one-on-one defender.
“You saw on Tuesday night, him and (Aaron) Wan-Bissaka really helped nulify the threat of probably the world’s quickest forward in Mbappe. He’s such a threat but they snuffed him out. They did that so well.
“Now he’s there, there’s probably a sense that the club don’t need to invest in someone else because he can do that job so well. He has been out on loan and has obviously had some injury problems but he can definitely come in and do a job. He’s versatile too.”
The emergence of Tuanzebe, coupled with the continued development of Rashford and the likes of Mason Greenwood means that this Manchester United side has a real local feel to it. And although there are no fans at Old Trafford at the current time, that’s just the way that the club’s supporters like it, as McGuinness acknowledges.
“A big part of being at the club, and what we would always tell the players, is that they’re a big part of the Manchester United history and the Manchester United spirit,” he says.
“He has been brought up on that philosophy. He reminds me of Wes Brown and of Des Walker, he’s that kind of quick defender. You always need a bit of pace at the back and alongside Wan-Bissaka, they certainly have that now.”
United’s progress has been a slow burner in recent seasons.
If Tuesday night is anything to go by, then United supporters should hold onto their hats.