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A boy who could do anything: the certain uncertainty of Adnan Januzaj’s United career

February 28, 2016 Tags: , , Opinion 13 comments
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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.

13 comments

Will Pucovski - February 29, 2016 Reply

Very good article, but Van Gaal should be giving a young player with this much talent a bit of a license to play the way he does without totally compromising the team. He has the ability to change games, and even though he gives the ball away occasionally, his ability to create chances is second to none. He can win matches off his own boot and does things no one else can. Hopefully the next manager can see this and allows him the opportunity to develop into the world class player he can be. Only thing I disagree with, I thought he was very good when given chances to play as an attacking midfielder. Created a lot of chances, but ultimately his best position should be as a wide midfielder as his ability to beat players with ease is unbelievable. Can also use his creativity from out wide as well

Subterranean Steve - February 29, 2016 Reply

This situation says more about van Gaal and his dictatorial, conformist, risk-free approach than it does about Adnan Januzaj. The kid has flair and an element of unpredictability, attributes traditionally valued at United.

However, van Gaal’s United is a different beast, or has been for the most part. It’s questionable whether either Georgie or Eric would ever have survived (or put up with) life under the narrow-minded Dutchman.

To refer to Januzaj’s return to United as “a second chance” is quite pathetic.

Dazza2501 - February 29, 2016 Reply

It is a crying shame to see talent going to waste, For differing reasons Ravel Morrison and Pogba come to mind. I write post 3-2 against Arsenal with LVG congratulating himself on having a small squad, which allows youth such as Rashford it’s chance. Utter bollocks !! This is the same manager who has played people out of position and persisted with woefully out of form players, and it’s only an injury crisis that had led to this. LVG binned so many forward players during the summer, and yet if Januzaj and Wilson had been given their chance this season he would at least have had some credit. Januzaj scored a good goal against Villa, and was criticised by the manager for losing possession & dumped out to Dortmund. Similarly in December and January when United couldn’t buy a goal, Wilson was loaned to Brighton. Clearly if Jose does pitch up at OT then you would fear for many of the youngsters careers, but LVG ‘s handling of some of the youngsters has been awful. I still believe LVG will go in May. The raw talent in Januzaj , Martial, Rashford, Wilson & Depay is cause for optimism. Maybe they won’t all succeed at United, but their chances are greater with Pochetino rather than LVG or Jose , as the Spurs boss has a philosophy more in line with Uniteds tradition of developing young talent.. Januzaj isn’t yet a lost cause, but the choice of manager will make or break his career.

SKW - February 29, 2016 Reply

LVG is a joke.

He credits himself for Martial, too, which was a panic buy and never planned and would never have played if Rooney and Memphis had performed. Same story with Lindegard. Now Rashford. Either LVG is delusional or he is a liar.

As far as Januzaj is concerned. He’s done. It’s been two seasons and he has not progressed. He won’t stay, nor should he. There are three wingers in front of him, all better. And we have plenty of 10s. I don’t think he’s worth keeping. Unless we’re dumping Memphis and playing Martial at CF.

Denton Davey - February 29, 2016 Reply

I have to disagree with this negative assessment of LvG’s treatment of Adnan that my three predecessors have put forward.

Adnan couldn’t break into the Dortmund line-up – a line-up that is so strong that Marco Reus, PIerre Emerick-Aubemyang, and Henrik Mikytaryan were ensconced as starters in a 4-3-3 and that Ilkay Gundogan was the advanced, attacking midfielder, Adnan’s marginality was likely to be almost certain. He was not even second-choice since that role is now Shinji Kagawa’s.

For all the positive noise about the goal he scored early this season against Aston Villa, his play has been characterized by its slowness. Again, today, it was his slowness that most impressed itself on me.

Maybe his confidence is shot and a move away from UTD is the best thing for both parties. RIght now, he looks like a journeyman-in-the-making. But, on the other hand, he’s still a kid so it would be a rather headstrong decision to cut him loose. Perhaps another loan – more carefully researched – might be in the best interest of both Adnan and the club.

For sure, he is behind Martial, Depay, Lingard, and now Marcus Rashford; not to mention Andreas Pereira, whose lack of game-time baffles me. In fact, he might even be behind Callum Gribbin in the team’s view of its future attacking talents.

But, there’s the rub, Adnan is a talent and having lost Ravel Morrison and given away Chicharito (“all he does is score goals”), it would be unwise to give up on Adnan. He’s under contract with UTD for a couple more years and I would think that trying to reinvigorate him would be a significant project – and one that could provide significant dividends.

Fusilli Jerry - February 29, 2016 Reply

For all that United takes its very identity as a club from 2 eras built on home-grown youth, our more recent record in looking after young people properly is about as impressive as the BBC’s. Farming out on loan, those kids the manager can’t be bothered to integrate, does not work, and has instead contributed disastrously in helping forge our bad latter-day reputation amongst young players, their agents and parents – a reputation that resulted in Gareth Bale and Aaron Ramsey feeling the need to actively steer their fledgling careers clear of United’s overtures when moving on from Southampton and Cardiff respectively. That Ferguson’s revisionism has sought to repaint Bale’s choice of Tottenham as a function of limited means-United getting outbid by Daniel Levy’s big spenders tells its own story regarding the embarrassment on this subject felt by the man who once won everything with kids.

Pogba and Pique are the unignorable case studies, although even there the gory detail tends to get forgotten: Ferguson opting for a central midfield pairing of Ji Sung Park and Rafael Da Silva in the home defeat to Blackburn that made the Frenchman’s mind up for good to leave, and one Jonny Evans getting promoted over the future mainstay of Spain’s history-makers when Vidic got crocked in 07-08. Probably completely forgotten however are the no less concerning instances of Tosic, Llajic and Rossi – perhaps unsurprising though, when the more recent Macheda episode is still so fresh in the mind. Anyone who absolves United of all culpability in that last instance, or points to the Italian’s subsequent career as unequivocal evidence that there was nothing there anyway, should come back when they understand a bit more about talent management. Restricting all recruitment to players whose motivational signature happens to be the exact same as that of Paul Scholes (complete disinterest in celebrity, and not needing any help or support in keeping their “feet on the ground”) is the same as saying that only people born within 3 miles of Old Trafford can play for the club.

Van Gaal wants credit for engineering the small “selection” that has led to this season’s debutants; he’d get that credit if Borthwick-Jackson and Varela had ever – just once – been actually preferred ahead of Valencia and Jones, and Fosu-Mensah actually preferred ahead of Schweinsteiger and Fellaini, rather than it taking the long-term non-availability of all other alternatives, before the youth got a look in. Who’s to say Pereira, or for that matter Wilson and Januzaj, couldn’t also have contributed to a better season for United in the same way that Rashford and Lingard now have, if given the proactively identified opportunity to do so – and the belief it was worth their sticking around.

Subterranean Steve - February 29, 2016 Reply

Some really interesting points F-J.

Zeneli - February 29, 2016 Reply

Lingard is average at best i dont know how some of you rated him above some of the talents coming through, his 23 for one and he was way behind pogba and morrison, i think who ever manutd next manager i lingard will be sold his a shitter version of antonio velencia who runs forward turns back and does a back pass, never looks forward for the forward pass, at least januzaj trys to do them forward passes

Tobias - February 29, 2016 Reply

I agree wholeheartedly with this! I’m glad it’s not just me than has seen this!

Aakash Verma - February 29, 2016 Reply

He still is the biggest talent we have, only one who can reach the impossibility. Just needed to be handled well.

Dazza2501 - February 29, 2016 Reply

Denton Davey – I think Januzaj’s confidence is shot , you are right there. But I think it is certainly in part down to van Gaal. This is a coach who has instilled this slow turgid possession based pattern of play which is somewhat at odds with an instinctive talent like Januzaj. As a result he looks nervous and hesitant, because his natural qualities are being coached out of him. Whilst I am no FA registered coach the evidence is there to see not only in Januzaj but I do not believe there is one forward player at United who has shown a really impressive run of form over 3-4 months since LVG has been at the club.with the money spent and differing characters styles and personalities the common thread is LVG . I do agree Januzaj should be persevered with, if he can get some confidence back, who knows ?

Subterranean Steve - February 29, 2016 Reply

This notion that van Gaal by design, likes to promote kids does not hold up to scrutiny. Off hand, I cannot recollect a situation, certainly in the Premier League, where van Gaal has selected a youngster to start a game, when a fit senior player has been available for that position.

As a result of injuries and the consequent shortage of senior players, kids have been promoted, firstly into the back line and more recently up in the forwards. Interestingly youngsters have not been starting a game in midfield because van Gaal still has enough senior players to cover those positions.

But for injuries, it is doubtful that we would have seen much of the likes of Rashford and Borthwick-Jackson under van Gaal.

mridul pandey - March 6, 2016 Reply

januzaj deserves another chance. I think he is better than lingard and need some 1st team starts to prove himself

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