Tag Adnan Januzaj

Tag Adnan Januzaj

Januzaj comes of age

September 18, 2013 Tags: Opinion 14 comments
featured image

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.

Fellaini eases into shirt as Januzaj steals the show

September 15, 2013 Tags: , Opinion 11 comments
featured image

So there it was at last. No, not David Moyes first win at Old Trafford. Nor, indeed, Marouane Fellaini’s first appearance in a Manchester United jersey, although the Belgian was deployed to good effect as a second half substitute on Saturday. The real talking point in United’s return to competitive action after the international break is reserved for Adnan Januzaj’s competitive debut. Composed, assured in possession, and prodigiously talented, Januzaj made ample claim for a major role in the season ahead as United beat  Crystal Palace on Saturday.

The United manager will take much satisfaction from the weekend’s events, although less from the Reds’ actual performance against a limited, but willing Palace side. Indeed, not until referee Jonathan Moss’s borderline decision to award the Reds a penalty, and dismiss the visitors defender Kagisho Dikgacoi for denying a goalscoring opportunity, did Moyes’ side final stamp its authority on the game. After defeat to Liverpool a fortnight ago victory was the minimum demanded by a passive Old Trafford crowd.

Meanwhile, Fellaini, on as a 62nd minute substitute for the largely ineffectual Anderson, enjoyed an unexacting debut. The £27.5 million Belgian midfielder rotated possession well, remained tactically disciplined when required, and even got off one fine long-range effort.

There will be far sterner opponents than Palace’s Mile Jedinak, of course, but at least the new United man remained on the pitch; those famous Fellaini elbows kept close to the midfielder’s chest in an understated display.

More allure lay elsewhere though. It was 50 years to the day since George Best, the waif like winger from Ulster, made his United bow. Best became the finest to grace Old Trafford before or since. And while the future holds no guarantees for the nebulous Belgian Januzaj, the 18-year-old served to remind just how much the current United side is crying out for a little of Best’s sparkle.

After all, Ashley Young’s outrageous dive, for which the 28-year-old was righly cautioned, was only marginally more irritating than the former Aston Villa player’s consistent mediocrity. Upgrade urgently required.

The Belgian kid drew the foul from which Wayne Rooney cracked home United’s second in a performance of real verve, but not before reminding home fans of the vast potential already demonstrated on this summer’s tour. That Januzaj is yet to sign a new contract will also remind Reds of other supremely talented teenagers to have escaped United’s clutches in recent seasons.

Januzaj is impressively keen to receive the ball, possesses good balance and intelligence beyond his years. The goal threat is muted, but as the teenager fills out he should become more potent in multiple forward positions. It is little wonder that many observers believe the kid is the most natural talent to emerge from the Academy in years.

The  teenager’s promise lay in stark contrast to United’s laboured performance for much of the piece; possession turned into chances, but so few of them clear cut, while the Reds’ finishing remained sub-optimal bar Rooney’s outstanding set-piece.

These are still early days in the new regime, of course, but as in fixtures against Chelsea and Liverpool a sense of ennui pervades. Moyes’ tactical focus on function over form in central midfield and a traditional ‘width and crosses’ approach to creating chances will surely come undone against more astute opponents.

Moyes was happy enough to declare himself pleased with the performance, although United must certainly level up against Bayer Leverkusen in midweek.

“I’m very happy. I thought there was a lot of good play, in the early part of the first half we were very good,” said Moyes.

“We created a lot of crossing positions and goal-scoring opportunities which we didn’t take. We made it a little bit nervy, so I was delighted when we got the penalty kick before half time.

“We didn’t concede any goals, which is a great thing. At the moment, we’re looking strong defensively and that will be really important in the coming games.”

Meanwhile, compatriot Fellaini slotted alongside Michael Carrick for a half-hour cameo. It was an understated display, perhaps limited by the player’s debut nerves. Yet, the Belgian displayed none of the carelessness in possession that sometimes blighted his displays at Everton. The chest control and half volley just a few moments into his entrance a hint at the player’s genuine goal threat.

“It was a fantastic debut and we won. I was both nervous and excited. I thought I had to play my game and with my quality,” said Fellaini in the aftermath.

“The supporters helped me, it was important for me. We won today so it was good for our confidence ahead of the next game – because the next game is a big game, it is a Champions League game.”

Fellaini will surely start against Leverkusen on Wednesday – a game that Rooney should also make after surprising many by returning to action so soon after suffering a serious facial cut in training. The Scouser was less than his effervescent best, but the quality of pace and dip on the 81st minute free-kick will live long in the memory. That Robin van Persie also scored keeps up the pair’s better than goal-a-game ratio.

But the post match chatter focused on Januzaj, who will challenge both Antonio Valencia and Young for a place in Moyes’ starting side in the months to come. Januzaj’s development is a major bonus for the former Everton manager, whose likely strategy this season is to build a strong defensive base  and trust United’s creativity to width.

“I think I did some good things, but it is only my debut so I have to keep doing well on the pitch,” Januzaj told MUTV.

“I appreciate the very good fans, they gave me a bit of power when I came on the pitch. I hoped to get a goal but I tried to do my best for the team and tried to give goals and score goals.  Of course, I want more games to play and I hope I will have another chance to play for the first team.”

In that there is a warning of course. Last summer Paul Pogba departed, contract expired, complaining of limited opportunities in the first team.

“The boy’s going to be a good player, he’s 18 years old and he’s a good talent,” assured Moyes post-match. “I would have introduced him earlier if the games had suited. I considered playing him from the start.”

It is a promise fans hope the manager keeps.

Ferguson’s final gift

August 3, 2013 Tags: , , , Opinion 15 comments
featured image

There was nothing on when Jesse Lingard picked up the ball 30 yards from goal. No red shirts in sight, just plenty of blue, closing in. What happened next was a mixture of the fearlessness of youth combined with individual skill. A look up, a shimmy, a drag back, and then Lingard shifted his weight to wrap his right foot around the ball, bending it into the far corner.

In many ways, it was fitting that Lingard should wrap up United’s pre-season marketing exercise tour. Whilst United’s jaunt around Australia and Asia had undoubtedly earned some extra money to line the Glazers’ pockets, it also served as an exciting window into the future. Sir Alex Ferguson may have retired, but his final gift to United was on display.

There are two things at the heart of Manchester United, woven deep into the fabric of the club: the pursuit of exciting football, and a preference for developing young players. For all the talk of big summer signings that may or, more likely, may not happen; for all the talk of Thiago, Cesc Fabregas and Mouranne Fellaini, the truth is, for most fans, the greatest thrill is seeing one of ‘our own’ flourish.

There is a special place in the club annals for the Busby Babes, George Best, Ryan Giggs, David Beckham, Paul Scholes and Gary Neville. And it’s why there will be extra pleasure at seeing Danny Welbeck flourish into a top class player over the coming years – a favourite moment last season coming when Welbeck scored in the Bernabéu.

United may not have produced another batch of youngsters to match the legendary Babes or Fergie’s Fledglings, but there has been a steady number of youngsters making the grade in recent years. The aforementioned Welbeck and Tom Cleverley played an important role in last season’s title success. Darren Fletcher, John O’Shea and Wes Brown have all won Champions League winners medals. In Brown’s case, two of them.

And as football has become a truly global game,  academy rules have changed, and it has become easier to snap up the best young talent from around the world, the definition of a ‘home grown youngster’ has widened.

Phil Jones, Chris Smalling, the Da Silva twins and David De Gea may not have grown up in United’s youth academy, but they are ‘our’ youngsters. These are players that the club has invested in; players that fans watch as they improve and fulfill their potential. After all, watching youngsters grow into top class performers is far more exciting that spending big money on established stars.

It remains to be seen how successfully David Moyes maintains the tradition of attacking football at United; the side has only periodically excited with great football since Cristiano Ronaldo left. But there are enough encouraging signs that Moyes is committed to continuing developing youth.

The first team squad that visited Thailand, Australia, Japan and Hong Kong was shorn of several regulars, but still contained Rio Ferdinand, Michael Carrick, Patrice Evra, Robin van Persie and Giggs. Yet, it was three young players who consistently impressed.

The performances of Jesse Lingard, Adnan Januzaj and Wifried Zaha this summer should offer reason to be optimistic for the future. Not just because they are young, nor even because Lingard is a product of United’s academy, but because they are genuinely exciting. Because they produce moments of individual skill. Because they are players who entertain.

Last season was thrilling in many ways. The early season comebacks, the comprehensive title victory after disappointment the previous year, and the joyous finale. But in truth United’s football wasn’t that exciting.

In recent years United have become a functional machine, a team accustomed to gaining results by being greater than the sum of its parts thanks to Ferguson’s brilliance.

It has become a machine embodied by two players on the flanks – traditionally an area of strength – who have just a single trick each, which is more often than not unsuccessful. Ashley Young and Antonio Valencia are not bad players, but they are not players who set the pulses racing. They do not get fans off their seats. And with one goal between them last season, not ones to worry opposition defenders either.

Yet Lingard, Januzaj and Zaha promise something fresh and exciting. They are players who can play across the forward line; who have excellent technique. Players who can take on a defender with skill and who make football fun to watch. And what is football if it’s not entertainment?

As the post-season drew in and the reality of a post-Ferguson United dawns, fans thoughts turned to the transfer market. Could the new manager prise the cheque-book off Malcolm Glazer’s hands and invest in one or two big signings?

Certainly, a central midfielder is a must. It has been for years. But many fans  also want to see another forward – perhaps not a striker, but an upgrade on the resources available in wide or deeper attacking areas. An advance on the maddening inconsistency of Nani and on the average served up by Young and Valencia. On Rooney’s ‘hands on hips look of frustration despite being unfit’ demeanour.

But watching United this pre-season, and witnessing the growth of three young players, may have prompted a re-think. Why should the club spend big on a new attacking player when there may be a solution already present?

This trio is not alone. Larnell Cole and Nick Powell are big talents in midfield. Will Keane is a gifted forward who will overcome a  serious knee injury. His twin brother Michael, who also played on tour, impressed on loan at Leicester City last season. And Angelo Henriquez may not have appeared for the first team yet, but he has already been capped by – and scored for – his country at full international level.

Promote youth and Young, Nani and Valencia will be kept on their toes. Meanwhile, Januzaj can cover for Shinji Kagawa in the attacking midfield role. Suddenly, Moyes’ attack looks less stodgy and far more exciting. More like a ‘proper’ United side.

These players may not make it as first team regulars. They may or may not prove to be good enough. Premier League football may be a step too far. But maybe, just maybe, some will make it. That they are gifted technically, brave and exciting in possession, ensures United fans want them go all the way.

There’s every chance that a rejuvenated Chelsea and Manchester City will leave Moyes’ outfit in the slipstream this season, with the club adjusting to the post-Ferguson era. But it doesn’t mean that the club’s identity will be lost. Instead, there’s an opportunity to build on it and to build a new, great United side.

And perhaps, with this current batch of youngsters, Ferguson has left Moyes with everything he needs to do just that.