It certainly doesn’t feel like it now, not with the confidence and determination that Jose Mourinho has installed at Manchester United since he took over this summer, but the three years that have followed Sir Alex Ferguson’s retirement have been met with unending unease about what the club should do with their two centre back positions.
David Moyes stuck with the tried and tested pair of Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic in his season in charge, but their form, along with most of their colleagues’ fell off a cliff under the Scotsman’s leadership, and both left the club in 2014. The following season saw United frequently utilise a 3-5-2 under Van Gaal’s stewardship, but other than Chris Smalling, no defender truly shone for United in the Dutchman’s first season, with Jonny Evans jettisoned to West Bromwich Albion, Marcos Rojo flattering to deceive after a summer transfer from Sporting Lisbon and Phil Jones’ campaign beset with injuries.
Last year, Daley Blind, not a centre back by trade was drafted in, and formed a fairly useful partnership with Chris Smalling which fell apart somewhat when results demanded a more risky approach. Smalling and Blind remain, but Jones and Rojo could be sold this summer.
Hope for the future comes in the shape of Eric Bailly, a summer signing from Villarreal who has adjusted to life at Old Trafford well, Timothy Fosu-Mensah who impressed towards the end of last season under Van Gaal, and one more youngster already at the club in the shape of Axel Tuanzebe.
Mourinho certainly seems keen, judging on these quotes given to Manutd.com after the club’s pre-season win over Wigan Athletic which Tuanzebe featured in:
“You can play 90 minutes or one minute and sometimes one minute is enough. With Axel [Tuanzebe] – 10 minutes is enough! [Laughs] The potential is there, you could see it immediately. You know him better than me of course as you’ve known for a few years and I’ve known him for a couple of weeks, but if anyone sees him for the first time then 10 minutes is enough to see the potential.”
James Tuck was equally full of praise for the player in his own article for the same site:
“Tuanzebe has began to demonstrate his potential on the pitch but he seems to have all the right attributes off it as well. It leads me to believe that, if he steers clear from the injury problems that disrupted his 2015/16 campaign, he could be among the next wave of Academy graduates to force his way into the first team. Even if this isn’t his breakthrough year, a bright future beckons.”
It does make you wonder if the pursuit of Jose Fonte is even necessary. Surely if Mourinho wanted to prove to any naysayers that he will promote youth as Manchester United manager, something incredibly important to the fabric of the club, then giving a young player like Tuanzebe the platform on which to learn and grow would be beneficial to all parties. Not that United need to worry, but it might save them a bit of cash in the process, too.