To mark Axel Tuanzebe's 21st birthday, club contributor and Aston Villa supporter Adam Bath provides his insight into our Academy graduate's loan spell at Villa Park, where he continues to impress...
THE MAKINGS OF A STAR
When Axel Tuanzebe arrived at Villa Park in January, we didn't really get to see much of his potential due to injury. However, since he returned for a second spell in the summer, we have watched him flourish as part of Aston Villa's back four.
Stepping into the shoes of John Terry in central defence was always going to be a tall order for Axel, especially as the former England skipper had struck up such a good partnership with former United man James Chester - last season, Villa conceded the third fewest goals in the Championship en route to the play-off final.
But the United loanee has really instilled himself into our hearts and we believe he has the makings of a future star.
I was at Pride Park last weekend to see Villa's away victory against Derby County and, at full-time, his name was serenaded by the 3,000 or so travelling supporters.
MOVING INTO THE CENTRE
One of the first names on our team sheet, Axel has only been absent from the starting XI on two occasions this season.
Tuanzebe embarked on his second loan spell in the West Midlands by playing as right-back under previous manager, Steve Bruce. This wasn’t the fans' preferred position for him and, before Bruce’s eventual departure, there were calls for him to be moved to centre-back, especially with midfielder Mile Jedinak suffering some defensive calamities in that position.
Indeed, in our first 13 games of the season, we kept just one clean sheet with a back four that was constantly chopped and changed. That predictably led to a lack of stability and confidence, plus a defence that was leaking goals.
THERE WAS A TURNING POINT
The arrival of new manager Dean Smith in October, with John Terry as assistant, has definitely seen an upturn in Axel’s performances.
He is now playing as part of a settled back four alongside Chester, Alan Hutton and Neil Taylor, and the results are clear to see. In Smith’s opening five games as gaffer we have kept three clean sheets, (more than we had in Bruce’s thirteen games this season) and won three of our last five fixtures.
Speaking in Villa's match day programme, prior to our fixture against Bolton Wanderers at the beginning of the month, Axel spoke about how he has immediately taken to the expansive, attacking style of play under Smith, likening it to the style he has mastered while graduating from the United Academy.
“It suits my style of play,” the 21-year-old said.
“It is the type of play we have at Manchester United. It is all beneficial for me to carry it on here, for when I go back to my parent club.”
THE FUTURE LOOKS BRIGHT
Most recently, Tuanzebe won the Man of the Match awards against in-form Championship sides Norwich City and Derby County. He has also helped Villa to gradually climb the table, with the play-off spots now in sight.
With a tricky run of fixtures to come in December, which includes the likes of West Bromwich Albion, Middlesbrough and Leeds United, Axel will be relied upon to make sure we can continue our current vein of form and lay down the gauntlet that this team is a force to be reckoned with.
Promotion is the aim for a club like Villa and the early signs of the Smith era are, for the most part, pretty good.
Having spoken to many United fans recently, it is clear there is excitement surrounding Tuanzebe's return to United. However, selfishly, I would prefer he remained at Villa if we returned to the Premier League next May.