Steven Gerrard has been accused of allowing Liverpool’s bitter rivalry with Manchester United affect Axel Tuanzebe’s chances of first-team football under him at Aston Villa.
Tuanzebe joined Villa on a season-long loan from United in August but that deal was cut short this month, with the defender moving to Napoli for the remainder of the season.
Following Gerrard’s appointment in November, Tuanzebe was limited to just eight minutes of football under the former Liverpool captain, having started six of Villa’s first 11 Premier League games and both League Cup ties when Dean Smith was in charge.
And Tuanzebe’s brother and agent, Dimitri Tuanzebe, believes United’s fierce rivalry with Liverpool was a factor in Gerrard’s decision to overlook the 24-year-old, whom he said was now relishing the prospect of a fresh start at Napoli.
“Axel is very excited to begin a new chapter in his football career, playing abroad and for a club with so much history behind it and fans who worship football,” Dimitri, who runs Millennial Sports Management, told ESPN.
“Axel didn’t decide to move until it became very clear that he isn’t the manager’s first-choice centre-back and the Napoli offer was very tempting.
“I have a lot of mixed emotions when it comes to Axel’s time at Villa. He is loved by the fans as he contributed highly to the club’s success in the Championship where he was one of the key players that helped Villa return to the Premier League.
“However, following the arrival of Steven Gerrard at Villa Park, it felt as if the rivalry between Man United and Liverpool came to life.
“For the avoidance of doubts, Axel was very open to staying at Villa, he loves the fans, being in Birmingham but he also has a career that he can only build and reach his full potential in an environment where opportunities to play are fair.”
Tuanzebe – who is contracted at Old Trafford until June 2023 with the option of another year – is now hoping to help Napoli to their first Serie A title for 32 years, with his brother insisting United backed the loan switch.
“Man United was very supportive of the move, made sure that it was in favour of Axel’s career and Napoli did everything within their power to make the deal possible,” Dimitri said.
“After multiple meetings with interested clubs’ sporting directors and managers, we all concluded that Napoli is the best option.
“Axel was persuaded by the clear path into the team, also a success story of players who have enjoyed playing time since they signed for Napoli after a lack of opportunities at their previous clubs.”