Football is rife with players of great potential who squandered it all. Paul Gascoigne is an extreme case in which he presents a real danger to himself and others. Meanwhile, the former Manchester United youngster Ravel Morrison went from being heralded as the most talented player to emerge from the Academy since Paul Scholes, to being sold on the cheap to Sam Allardyce.
By contrast, “between the ages of sixteen and twenty,” Gary Neville “dropped women completely” to focus on football and enjoyed more years at the top than his more talented brother. As with everything, attitude is key in the making of a footballer.
There are circumstances outside of the youngster’s control that determines his future too. With Nemanja Vidic and Rio Ferdinand in prime, Gerard Piqué failed to break into the first team. Jonny Evans, despite being less gifted than the Barcelona defender, enjoyed regular games in 2008-9 due to Ferdinand being consistently injured. The road to stardom is long and winding.
Which is a nice segue into the hot prospect of the moment, Adnan Januzaj. The teenager arrived from Belgium aged just 16. United brought him to Manchester after the Belgian impressed the scouts with his technical skills in 2011. His progress has been steady – the former Anderlecht forward enjoyed an excellent campaign at under-21 level and ended last season as the Reserve Player of the Year.
Able to play across attacking midfield positions, Januzaj has excelled in a variety of roles at Moss Lane and continued his form in pre-season games. With Antonio Valencia, Luis Nani and Ashley Young in poor form, the 18-year-old is justified in looking to “get some games for the first team” this season.
Reports suggest that Janunzaj is of sound personality. Put into an unfamiliar striking role last season, by coaches seeking to develop his physical attributes, the youngster managed to adapt without complaint.
And unlike Morrison, who often graced major newspapers with his antics, Januzaj has stayed out of trouble. Sir Alex Ferguson, David Moyes and Warren Joyce all consider the Albanian-born player to be professional in his behavior. He is also willing to listen to others and seek advice. “Every time I need to ask something, I go to Giggs,” said the youngster recently.
Defying the gifted young forward stereotype, Januzaj is fairly tall at 5’11”. He has a wiry frame, but he is decent in the air and shields the ball very well. The-18 year-old also possesses excellent balance which makes it extremely hard for defenders to push him off the ball.
He offers great pace and his balance allows the Belgian to make sharp turns at speed. Although he needs to add strength to his arsenal, it would appear Januzaj is more than ready to handle the physical aspects of the Premier League.
Januzaj relies on his pace and ability to make sharp turns to leave behind opposition players, but he also has well-developed technical skills enabling the kid to dribble past defenders. He is very adept at handling the ball in close quarters with an excellent first touch.
The teenager’s passing is also impressive, and he has the vision to greet runners with a ball played into space. It is this ability to make searching through balls that defies Januzaj’s inexperience.
Perhaps the most extraordinary of Januzaj’s attributes is his tactical awareness. The Belgian often seeks space, not unlike new Arsenal recruit Mesut Özil. Where young forwards often tend to kill the tempo by retaining the ball, the Belgian prefers to involve his teammates. When United is in possession, Januzaj tends to come deep and offer his teammates an option and then seeks to create space.
The may also be right for the youngster’s introduction to Moyes first team. Januzaj made his Premier League debut against Crystal Palace at Old Trafford, replacing Ashley Young for the last 20 minutes. And despite featuring for less time than Young Januzaj attempted and completed almost as many passes as the former Aston Villa winger. He also created more chances.
Here was an accomplished professional and not a youngster nervously coming through. Of course, there are tougher games to come, and the Reserve Player of the Year is by no means proven at the top yet, but the potential is obvious.
He has some work to do though. Januzaj’s defensive qualities of are still in doubt. The teenager comes deep in search of the ball, but it leaves a question mark about his tactical discipline. In the months to come Januzaj will face players of higher caliber than ever before, and he will be required to maintain concentration for longer that he has ever needed to. Deploying Maroune Fellaini as a defensive midfielder should ease the pressure, but a team’s defensive unit is only as strong as its weakest link.
But Januzaj offers something that no other first teamer provides: he is comfortable with both feet although he is naturally left footed. With Giggs unable to play 90 minutes consistently, there is no established player who Moyes can play as a traditional winger on the left.
Meanwhile, Young has gained many critics in two years with the club. The former Aston Villa player’s one dimensional play limits his usefulness – he fails to cut inside despite being right-footed – and lacks the technical quality to efficiently navigate tight quarters. He is too often shepherded down the left and rendered docile.
Danny Welbeck, Wayne Rooney and Shinji Kagawa can play on the left, but each is forced to cut inside. Januzaj, on the other hand, can hit the byline and cross, or cut inside to his natural position at ’10’ and overload the centre of the park.
The potential partnership with Patrice Evra is also worth exploring too. Evra attacks the box just as much as he goes to the byline. When Januzaj provides width, the French full-back is afforded room to come inside, and vice versa.
The 18-year-old is green, but the opposition faces also faces a challenge simply by the virtue that Januzaj is unpredictable. Moreover, Moyes has a history of promoting young players to the first team. Jack Rodwell and Rooney debuted at 16. Ross Barkley did so at 17, although Moyes faces a heavier burden to deliver at United than he did at Everton.
Januzaj’s defensive naivety will weigh heavily in the Scot’s mind, but it is now clear Moyes seriously considers Januzaj as an alternative this season. Ashley Young’s dive against Palace might just become symbolic.