Remember when Adnan Januzaj was hailed as the next big thing? It feels like an age ago when a coltish 18-year-old made his first full start for Manchester United against Sunderland at the Stadium of Light, illuminating the pitch with a match-winning performance. His future looked bright back then. Not so much now.
Januzaj’s emergence was one of the few positives from the wreckage of the David Moyes era. Now the Belgian seems to be drinking at the last chance saloon once again. That he has another chance at Old Trafford owes much to the instability that has engulfed the club post-Sir Alex Ferguson more than anything else. One suspects that had Louis van Gaal remained as manager the Belgian international would have been moved on.
From a purely empirical point of view the drop off in output has been astonishing. In the 2013/14 season, Januzaj’s breakthrough campaign, the youngster started 15 league games and came on as a substitute in a further 12, scoring four times and registering three assists. Since then he has added just another nine full starts for United, with 14 substitute appearances. The only real notable positive contribution being Januzaj’s winner against Aston Villa last season in.
That’s not to mention the ill-fated stint at Borussia Dortmund where he failed to start a single Bundesliga match.
“A part of him was always still in Manchester and we just couldn’t help him cut this umbilical cord,” said Thomas Tuchel, BVB’s coach. “He didn’t wholly embrace Borussia. He always compared everything with how it had been at United.”
Van Gaal stuck the boot in on the Belgian’s less than triumphant return from Germany.
“They are coming to us to ask for a second chance, and Manchester United is a club who takes care of all their players,” said Van Gaal. “I think it’s a very good habit to do that and I believe in the talent of Adnan Januzaj, I have said that also, and I have said already that it would be difficult for him to play matches at Dortmund. Unfortunately I was right.”
Life didn’t get much better for the United attacker. Januzaj gave away the free kick that led to Southampton’s winner at Old Trafford in January and rumours surfaced of a falling out with Van Gaal as the season wound to a close.
To cap off a miserable campaign the one time ‘next big thing’ missed out on an FA Cup final spot and failed to make the Belgium Euro 2016 squad.
Such has been Januzaj’s fall that his name now comes up as an afterthought. While there are plenty of stories about the respective futures of Daley Blind, Memphis Depay, Bastian Schweinsteiger and Juan Mata, Januzaj has been simultaneously damned and spared after being touched by the hand of anonymity.
"From a purely empirical point of view the drop off in output has been astonishing. In the 2013/14 season the youngster started 15 league games and came on as a substitute in a further 12. Since then he has added just another nine full starts."
In that sense being the forgotten man may be worse and being an unwanted one. The players who are moved on by José Mourinho can at least look to the possibility of playing first team football at their new clubs. Januzaj could be stuck in limbo with another year in the reserves unless he can convince the new United manager that he’s good enough to be around first team squad. It’s not guaranteed given Mourinho typically works with a small squad of 20-22 players.
The scale of his task is daunting though as the list of players in front of Januzaj for an attacking role is long: Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Wayne Rooney, Anthony Martial, Marcus Rashford, Henryk Mkhitaryan, Jesse Lingard and possibly even Andreas Pereira. Throw into the mix the need for United to get back on a title-challenging footing and it’s easy to see that Januzaj has practically no room for error this summer.
In fairness the 21-year-old has recognized the need to hit the ground running. He looks stronger having put in the hours at the gym over the summer. Since reporting for pre-season training Mourinho has apparently been impressed by the Belgian’s sharpness.
Januzaj can also derive comfort from his new manager’s words when the Portuguese was in charge of Chelsea. Prior to United facing the Blues at Stamford Bridge in 2014, Mourinho lavished praise upon the young forward.
“He is a fantastic player. He is not 18 – he is 25. He is so mature and comfortable. A very good and important player,” said the Portuguese.
There’s still the possibility that Januzaj could be sent out on loan, with Middlesbrough mooted as a possible destination. If he does venture to Teeside it may not necessarily mean the end of his United career as he’ll be under the watchful eye of a Mourinho disciple, Aitor Karanka. If Karanka can crack the Januzaj code then it could be José and United that reap the future rewards.
United’s 2-0 win against Wigan Athletic last weekend marked the start of Januzaj’s attempt to rebuild his Old Trafford career, this time with Mourinho as his mentor. The Portuguese’s preference for operating with specialist players will be a boon for Januzaj. Under Van Gaal he played as a number 10, a winger and even as a wing-back. Playing for Mourinho will at the very least provide Januzaj with the opportunity to stake his claim playing in his strongest position without fear of being shifted around like a chess piece.
A once bright future is in danger of fizzling out and if Januzaj is to realise his potential at Old Trafford this is the season where need needs to prove his worth again.
The question is can Adnan deliver?