A boy who could do anything: the certain uncertainty of Adnan Januzaj’s United career
October 2013. David Moyes’ Manchester United side is struggling against Paolo Di Canio’s Sunderland at the Stadium of Light. After an agonizingly feeble first-half defensive display, the Red Devils , in the 53rd minute, find a way back to less-than-deserved parity. Nani, pausing on the edge of the 18-yard box, clips a curling, outside-of-the-foot cross toward the back post. Sunderland centre-half John O’Shea clears the ball, unchallenged, to United’s juvenescent number 44. Eighteen-year-old Adnan Januzaj, unperturbed by the pressures of his professional début, strokes an exquisite first-time, left-footed volley into the bottom corner to propel United into the lead. It was Januzaj’s second goal of the afternoon and proved to be the match-clinching strike.
Sixteen days later, United announced the conclusion of a long-term contract with the prodigiously talented youngster. England manager Roy Hodgson deflected a cascade of questions regarding the possibility of the ‘exciting’ and ‘brilliant’ Januzaj electing to play for the Three Lions in the forthcoming FIFA World Cup in Brazil. Januzaj, through a series of impressive performances on the left-flank, made 35 appearances in all competitions in his break-out season, providing the most outstanding highlight of an otherwise wretched and miserable campaign under Moyes.
Two seasons on and Januzaj’s United career is at an improbable yet arguably unpromising crossroads.
Having inherited Ryan Giggs’ iconic number 11 jersey, Januzaj endured an unfruitful and frustrating first season under Louis van Gaal, a campaign during which the young Belgian’s exponential progress was arrested by distrustful, unimaginative and intransigent management. Lacking confidence, often overzealous and frequently deployed in disparate positions, Januzaj regularly underperformed on the sporadic occasions he was afforded a starting opportunity in 2014/15.
Januzaj departed United that summer on a spontaneous and, frankly, perplexing loan deal with Borussia Dortmund. The willingness of United to outsource Januzaj’s services, without compensation, was exceeded only by the bizarreness of the Belgian’s dearth of opportunities at the Bundesliga outfit.
Paradoxically, United’s relapse to disappointing form, and the concomitant intensification of pressure on Van Gaal, renders it increasingly unlikely that the Dutchman will voluntarily elect to field a flamboyant and creative, yet inconsistent and defensively irresolute youngster. Januzaj’s late substitute appearance in United’s victory over Arsenal on Sunday was just his second since returning in January.
Indeed, Van Gaal’s decision to recall Januzaj from loan is almost certainly just a contingency for United’s escalating injury crisis. It is improbable that Januzaj’s premature return to Old Trafford was catalysed by an epiphanic identification of the Belgian’s capacity to propel United to a top-four finish. Van Gaal’s management of Januzaj over two seasons suggests the Belgian is little more than a fall-back.
"He has a second chance and Manchester United is a club that takes care of all our players and I think it’s a very good habit to have that. I believe in the talent of Adnan Januzaj. I said it would be very difficult to play matches in Dortmund and unfortunately I was right."
– Louis Van Gaal
Januzaj’s future at the club is arguably more uncertain should, as seems likely, José Mourinho pries the reins from Van Gaal’s lifeless fingers in the summer. Victories over Shrewsbury Town, Midtjylland and Arsenal have offered Van Gaal temporary reprieve, but the Dutchman is almost certainly out of a job come June.
Given the unlikelihood of the Portuguese digressing from the tactical formula with which he has secured league titles in four countries, Januzaj will almost certainly not play in his preferred role at number 10. Although the youngster’s opportunities in this position have been limited, Januzaj has hitherto failed to demonstrate the command of space, passing range and tactical awareness required of an advanced midfielder in the modern game. The Belgian is not cut from the same cloth as that from which Mourinho has fashioned playmakers in his most successful teams.
Further, unless Januzaj is willing to develop his defensive productivity and tactical discipline, it is unlikely that he will be afforded an opportunity in wide areas under Mourinho. To a dispassionate pragmatist like the Portuguese, Januzaj’s natural talent and academy roots are insufficient, in lieu of defensive industry, to merit a place in a predictably small squad. If the reports from Dortmund’s Thomas Tuchel of an indolent Januzaj are correct, it would appear unlikely that the Belgian has a future at a Mourinho-led United at all.
"I never had the feeling Adnan was here with his whole heart, but rather that a part of him stayed in Manchester and compared everything with Manchester United. We were not able to help him let go of it. Sadly, he wasn’t in it with the motivation and attitude you need to further yourself at this age. "
– Thomas Tuchel
However, given the relative brevity of Januzaj’s professional footballing career, it is problematic, if not impossible, to predict how the starlet will emerge from a challenging and potentially decisive next six months. It is a period that is unlikely to engender a proliferation of first-team opportunities under Van Gaal, while there is a scarcity of persuasive evidence that Januzaj would be incapable or unwilling to adapt to the methods of the Dutchman’s successor, Mourinho or otherwise. After all, Januzaj has demonstrated extraordinary commitment and diligence to emerge as topic in United’s first-team conversation at such a young age.
It is unfortunate to witness such a young and talented player traverse the hallways of uncertainty at Old Trafford. However, Januzaj’s arrival at a career crossroads does not call for regretful reminiscing. At present, it suffices to say that the Belgian’s future is certainly uncertain. Given Januzaj’s natural talent and colossal potential, though, United fans should expect of Van Gaal’s successor that the Belgian is afforded patience, assurance and frequent first-team opportunities. Reciprocally, Januzaj must be willing to refine his incredibly raw natural game, adapting to whatever philosophy the incoming manager requires.
There must be more volleyed winners and two-goal heroics from the Belgian to come.