“This is the end, beautiful friend, my only friend, the end” – The Doors.It’s pretty safe to say that Adnan Januzaj’s United career can be filed in the ‘not quite good enough’ drawer. There’ll be a sense of bitterness, if there isn’t already, that a highly talented academy graduate will be moving on to pastures new, and perhaps a justifiable sense of anger that the Belgian didn’t kick on after his breakthrough season. Yet, perhaps the most appropriate feeling is one of sadness.
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.
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.
There is, it seems, something attractive about youngsters with a complex identity. In 2014 Adnan Januzaj settled, after no little debate in at least three countries, for a place with the Belgian national side. Januzaj burst onto the scene as one of the few players to emerge with genuine credit through the failed David Moyes experiment, earning a trip to the World Cup finals in Brazil with Belgium. While the 20-year-old suffered a ‘difficult second season’ under new manager Louis van Gaal, this summer the focus has switched to Andreas Pereira, another outrageously talented Belgium-born teenager.
Born in Duffel – and an international representative of the Red Devils at three age groups – Pereira now dons the yellow of Brazil and stared for the Seleção at the FIFA Under-20 World Cup earlier this summer. It has been a busy few months for the former PSV Eindhoven player, with a new contract inked in May, and a headline-grabbing performance against San Jose Earthquakes on Wednesday night. All signs point to Pereira’s inclusion in Van Gaal’s first team plans for the coming season.
Indeed, the 19-year-old’s smartly taken headed goal, in the second of four games on this summer’s short tour of the United States, prompted Van Gaal to call out the midfielder’s performance. Over 45 second-half minutes, operating in a central creative role, Pereira linked well with striker James Wilson, bursting late into the box to head home after an hour. It sealed a solid win for the visitors at the Avaya Stadium.
Pereira joined United’s academy from PSV in 2011 and first signed a professional deal at the start of 2013, but his Old Trafford future remained in doubt for much of last season with the midfielder’s contract running down. Two first team appearances late in the campaign, including a début against Tottenham Hotspur described by the player as a “dream come true,” may have convinced Pereira to sign on until at least 2018.
The player’s goal on Wednesday was his first in Van Gaal’s team, albeit just one of what could be many for the club in the coming years if talent is translated in to performances. Pereira’s high-quality first touch, powerful shot and genuine creativity mark the Brazilian out as high-class prospect for a range of attacking midfield roles.
Still, his future, like many youngsters coming through at Old Trafford, remains uncertain. Not least given the range of competition in the positions Pereira typically operates. Many of the midfielder’s better performances for United’s Under-21 side have come at ‘number 10’, although the player is seemingly equally comfortable coming in off either flank as – in modern parlance – a “false winger.” In each role Van Gaal now possesses at least two international-standard options.
“I’m very happy that I scored my first goal and we won the game,” Pereira told MUTV on Wednesday. “I have to do well to try to impress the manager, try to impress everyone, so I can continue with the first team and do well this season.”
“I think it’s important for me to play in different positions. If the boss tells me to play on the left or behind the striker, I play where he tells me to play so it’s no problem for me.”
With Van Gaal deploying a loose 4-2-3-1 formation over the past two games Pereira’s options are stronger than if the Dutchman switches, as many expect, to a more traditional 4-3-3 formation at the start of the campaign. Juan Mata, Memphis Depay and Ashley Young were deployed behind Wayne Rooney on Wednesday and against Club America at the weekend; Pereira joined Wilson, Ander Herrera and Jesse Lingard for the second half of both matches. Angel di Maria, if he remains at the club beyond this summer, and Marouane Fellaini will also vie for roles in either formation.
The goal against the Quakes, together with a smart performance in Seattle during United’s opening tour game, have garnered the boss’ attention less than three weeks before the campaign proper kicks off.
“I liked the goal of Pereira,” admitted Van Gaal in the aftermath of Wednesday’s game. “It was a beautiful goal, a beautiful attack also, and he’s not so big. But, at the right moment, there’s the gap and the header is also very good. I like this goal but, of course, I like every goal that Manchester United can score!”
If Pereira’s star is on the rise, then Januzaj faces a long road back into Van Gaal’s first team planning. Januzaj made just 21 appearances last season, with 13 coming off the bench, in what proved to be a hugely disappointing post-World Cup campaign. More than just the lack of stand-out games for the club, in a goalless campaign, Van Gaal’s apparent lack of trust has precipitated speculation that Januzaj could leave United permanently this summer. This is a long way from the £25 million bid for the player launched by Paris Saint German just 18 months ago.
Still, a summer fitness programme in Dubai, which included Luke Shaw, has apparently paid rapid dividends, with Januzaj featuring, like Pereira, as a second-half substitute in both games on tour. Also in common with Pereira the Belgian international has eyes on a role at number 10 for the club – one that has been filled over the past year by Rooney, Mata and Fellaini to various degrees of success.
“I like the position,” Januzaj told MUTV. “As a young player, I always played there, as a number 10. Only in the last two or three years have I been playing on the wing and also sometimes as a striker. The position I prefer is behind the striker but I’m happy to play wherever the manager wants me to play.”
Certainly, Januzaj’s flexibility should appeal to Van Gaal’s Dutch sensibilities; the player’s dedication to getting fit will also have won supporters in the veteran’s coaching party.
“We decided to do it because this season we have to do better than last season,” he added. “Last season, I didn’t have many games but this year I have to be fit and get as many games as I can. I wanted to work hard and achieve something this season. I think it has helped already as I feel I am getting stronger.”
Neither Januzaj or Pereira is likely to start the campaign against Spurs at Old Trafford on 8 August, although Van Gaal’s lack of striking options means that he will pack the team with attacking midfield talent. For the time being Herrera, Young and Mata remain in prime position to support lone striker Rooney. Yet, the ability for the Dutchman to call on both youngsters in the coming months should add creativity and goals to a team that often lacked both last season.
Indeed, with Van Gaal recruiting two defensive-minded midfielders in Bastian Schweinsteiger and Morgan Schneiderlin this summer, many believe United’s manager will be emboldened to approach this campaign with a little less reservation than last. Certainly, the pressure to reach the top four is now eased, although the Premier League will be no less competitive in the months to come.
For two youngsters it could just be a key season – a breakthrough for one, and the positive comeback that another has worked hard to achieve.
Imagine for a moment a Manchester United side without Robin van Persie or Wayne Rooney. In the kind of thought experiment common in pubs throughout the land consider, if you will, whether United could actually be better off without two of the finest strikers in Europe? Odd as the premise may seem, there is growing evidence that some of United’s more exciting performances in recent times have come when David Moyes’ hand has been forced into change by injuries.
None more so than at St. James’ Park on Saturday where the Reds hammered Newcastle United with a brand of dynamic, flexible, attacking football rarely seen under the new management. Neither Rooney, nor van Persie were available and, perhaps more pertinent still, United spent much of game without a traditional winger in sight.
This was a performance far flung indeed from the risible avalanche of crosses delivered against Fulham at Old Trafford in January, where United lobbed in more than 80 to such little effect that Cottagers defender Dan Burn compared it to Conference level football. Such has been the pattern for most of the campaign.
Indeed, at the heart of United’s performance at St. James’ was £37 million January acquisition Juan Mata, the rejuvenated Shinji Kagawa and teenage sensation Adnan Januzaj. Each man has a legitimate claim, and talent, to be United’s ‘number 10’; each seemingly lies behind Rooney in the pecking order for the role. Yet, in the north east the trio worked in tandem from the 18th minute on to devastating effect as United ran out comfortable winners.
While Januzaj’s form has waned a touch in the new year, Kagawa and Mata are growing as a pair with each passing game. The Spaniard was deployed through the centre against Newcastle, and Japanese nominally off the left, although in reality the formation for the final two thirds defied any real systemic label. Januzaj’s introduction created a flexible triumvirate that has little obvious resemblance to Moyes’ typical formation – one that history suggests the Scot is loathe to deploy.
Mata has become the perfect complement to Kagawa in the past month rather than, as popular perception might have it, the former Borussia Dortmund player’s replacement. “Its a pleasure to play with Shinji Kagawa, we connect very well,” said Mata of the growing partnership. In Januzaj the pair has a teammate very much cut from the same cloth.
And the Spaniard has certainly benefitted from the more central role proffered after van Persie’s latest injury. “I don’t see myself as a proper winger,” Mata told ESPN last month. “I love to play between the lines as a number 10, come inside, that is where I feel comfortable. I love to play in possession.”
He certainly did that at Newcastle, contributing 62 passes to United’s total of 531. Kagawa touched the ball 72 times, while the vital Darren Fletcher contributed 76 passes in the holding role. And while United remained direct – launching more than 15 per cent of balls long – the team played more passes in the attacking third than is often the case. In other words Mata, Kagawa and Januzaj are prepared to be more intricate in the build up than is typical when Ashley Young, Antonio Valenica or Nani are involved.
Kagawa, meanwhile, is still operating from the left, but as in the match at West Ham United last month, the Japanese is more likely to drift inside in Mata’s presence, seemingly stripped of – or simply ignoring – Moyes’ instructions to cover his full-back. It certainly aids the playmaker’s efficacy when United deploys two holding midfielders, with Fletcher and Marouane Fellaini starting against Alan Pardew’s side and covering as the visitors’ attack broke down.
“I played behind the main striker at Dortmund,” Kagawa told United Review last December. “I should be flexible enough to play in a number of roles, so I am a more attractive player to the team .” More pertinent still, Kagawa declared his desire to “play in the hole,” on signing in June 2012. “I feel like that’s where I play my best football.” Few will disagree.
But key also to United’s more dynamic approach at St. James’ was Javier Hernández’ presence. The Mexican is always on the move, whereas van Persie has become increasingly static this season as injuries and frustration bite. Rooney, meanwhile, has a tendency to slow United’s play down with long-range right-to-left passes into the space that Moyes venerates.
Hernández has been more frequently out of United’s first team than in it this season, but his ability to stretch the opposition and run in behind the back four proffered Mata, Kagawa and then Januzaj options for the final pass – and, with some irony, far greater space in which to run. A similar observation could be made of Danny Welbeck, who is less explosive than Chicharito, but offers defenders a moving target. Life without Rooney or van Persie might strip United of goals, but a more flexible attacking approach is certainly the upside.
Yet, there is also a school of thought that says Moyes is unlikely to start any of United’s more creative players against Bayern Munich next Wednesday. Mata will be ineligible, Januzaj will surely drop to the bench, while Kagawa’s presence is far from guaranteed. After all in the home leg Moyes preferred the physical defensive presence of Fellaini together with Ryan Giggs’ experience in midfield.
Moreover, while the best offensive approach against Bayern is often to squeeze play, winning the ball back in higher areas of the pitch and then breaking quickly, Moyes tends to take a more traditional view of the defensive art. United dropped so deep against the Germans last week that Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidić simply defended their own 18-yard-line. ‘Parking the bus’ may be an effective defensive tactic, but United needs to win or score at least twice in Munich.
Still, it would be strange indeed for the Scot to deviate from his typical pattern, and Moyes’ analysis of United’s away form this season hints at the Reds’ likely approach in the coming Champions League fixture. United will not be taking the game to Bayern in the Allianz Arena.
“Maybe there’s a big expectation at Old Trafford to go and be a bit gung-ho and play in a real attacking style,” suggested the Scot on Saturday. “We’ve lost a few games by narrow margins – 1-0 (to) Newcastle United, Everton. We’ve lost a few games like that, whereas maybe away from home there’s not as much expectancy to go and be like that.”
Yet, the Reds’ victory at Newcastle was the first time this season that Moyes’ side had actually beaten an opponent in the Premier League’s top nine away from home. Defeat at the Etihad and Stamford Bridge, came alongside draws with Arsenal and Tottenham Hotspur in north London. Fixtures with Everton at Goodison Park and Southampton at St. Mary’s will test United in the weeks to come.
In contradiction to the Scot’s analysis, Moyes’ tendency to approach difficult away fixtures with a defensive mindset may well contribute to United conceding impetus and possession to the opposition. In similar fashion the injured Rooney is likely to return in Germany, where Welbeck will be asked to reprise his role on the left, and Valencia is favourite to offer defensive cover from the right.
As such, while it was a pleasure witnessing Mata, Kagawa and Januzaj in tandem on Saturday, it is an approach unlikely to be repeated next week.
Data attribution: Opta/ESPN
There is much reason for double celebration for wunderkind Adnan Januzaj this week. The boy turns 19 today amid news that he’s been awarded the much-vaunted Manchester United Player of the Month award, verisimilarly the first of many accolades he’ll accrue during his Old Trafford tenure. What Januzaj represents, first and foremost, is that if a player displays enough restraint to steer clear of (alleged! – Ed) liaisons with the manager’s next of kin, David Moyes will afford youth a chance to prove itself. It’s a fairly straightforward premise; eschew off-field penetration, and you shall be given ample opportunity to penetrate opposition defences. (that’s enough! – Ed)
Reds aplenty grow excitable at the mere mention of Januzaj, with fans asserting that the youngster will become a superstar. There is a sole objection to this assertion; one could already herald him a superstar. And he will be an icon too.
Januzaj exudes that superstar quality even during these embryonic stages of his playing career. In the youngster’s first start for the club versus Sunderland back in October he bagged a brace to overturn a 1-0 deficit. If previous glimpses had informed supporters that someone pretty special was at the club’s disposal, the double provided the requisite confirmation.
And this isn’t the type of special that could tease fans for a solitary season, nutmegging prestigious players such as Luis Figo before fizzling out before observers very eyes. This is the type of special that, barring any career-threatening injury or penchant for extra-curricular debauchery, could go on to become one of the world’s finest.
Without suggesting Januzaj will develop into a better player than Cristiano Ronaldo, a bigger icon than George Best, or exceed Ryan Giggs’ medal haul as a longtime servant of the club, it’s hard not to parallel the kid with the glorious wide men who’ve already plied their trade at the Theatre. Like the aforementioned wide-men Januzaj has that wide boy chutzpah in abundance. Every bit as good as he thinks he is, the youngster will do things on a football field that leave fans marveling at his majesty. It is a hallmark of all the greats.
When considering the grace with which Januzaj manoeuvres his body he is more Best or Giggs than Ronaldo. He floats with the grace of a butterfly, whereas Ronaldo charges with the horsepower of, well, a horse.
The footballing juxtaposition on the flanks between Januzaj and his marker, United-alum Bardsley, is one of the greatest witnessed in recent times, encapsulating finesse versus brutishness on a football field, and manifested itself in the Sunderland player being given an almighty runaround. The performance evoked Danny Wallace’s well-documented soundbite about his left-wing successor, the teenage Giggsy: “I’d have kicked him if I could have caught him.” Or words to that effect.
In the ill-fated second leg of the Capital One Cup semi-final, whilst Januzaj was moved to the opposite flank to accommodate Shinji Kagawa on the left-hand side, analytical minds may have still suspected it was an exercise in preservation by Moyesey; the rationale to spare Januzaj an unceremonious kicking.
This also got the cogs cogitating. The Januzaj ditty predominantly rings true – he “can do anything.” Apart from two minor exceptions: he can’t avoid being literally scythed down by graceless defenders, nor can he avoid being metaphorically scythed down by young ladies looking to make a pound out of recounting their piquant-poultry based suppers. The long-gone Anderson would be so proud of his dude.
At this juncture credit is due Nando’s marketing department for opportunely sniffing a P(e)R(i) stunt, and sending a £50 Nando’s gift voucher to Old Trafford, addressed to Januzaj. £50 did seem lavish though since the lad isn’t putting away Andow-sized platters.
In the absence of Wayne Rooney and Robin van Persie through injury, it did become disconcertingly apparent that Moyes’ side was growing over-reliant on a 19-year-old that has barely played two dozen times for the club. Perhaps even more alarming was that Januzaj himself had started to detect a dearth of alternative viable options surrounding him during the Sunderland semi-final second leg. It prompted the youngster to attempt numerous shots from distance. Januzaj’s precocious gall to shoot-on-sight is admirable, but the underlying motivation remains concerning.
Moyes desperately needed to sign in January to support Januzaj, and the manager thankfully delivered in before the window closed. Not only did United stave off other clubs’ interest by securing Januzaj’s signature on a five-year contract, but United also purchased Juan Mata to complement the kid’s boundless talent.
The thought of Juan and Janu collaborating, merely in terms of creatively merging their names, is enthralling enough for those wordsmiths amongst us. Portmanteaus abound for the dynamic duo; JuAdnan, Juanuzaj. And then one envisages the potential when the pair orchestrates in tandem with a football at its collective feet – it’s certainly a tantalizing prospect to contemplate of a wet and windy Wednesday evening.
And which self-respecting pun artiste isn’t counting down the days till Adnan and Nani start a game together, purely so that when Nani assists Adnan – or vice-versa – they can shamelessly flaunt “Adnani”?!
Happy Birthday, young man.
It is all too easy to go overboard in effusive praise of a bright new star. Manchester United supporters have seen many briefly burn over the years, only for hope to fade and die, expectation collapsing into the blackest hole. None burned brighter than Ravel Morrison, whose ability to glide across the turf as if skating effortlessly on a winter lake marked the Mancunian out as a youth player of real class. All touch, flicks, tricks, and genuine creativity, Morrison was born to play for United.
Except, of course, he wasn’t. Not really. The excitement of those who watched Morrison develop through the academy and reserves simply disappeared into a raft of troubles that eventually drove a huge talent away from Manchester.
Morrison’s move to West Ham United ended one of the most enduring dramas at the club. Yet, the youngster’s transfer south was inevitable only once Sir Alex Ferguson came to the realisation in late 2011 year that he could do little more to help the player.
The Scot was the last of United’s coaching staff to give up on a youngster whose story has never held a clear narrative. Here is a challenged young man who many simply expected to disappear out of the game, talent wasted forever, once Sir Alex decided to let him go.
Morrison moved south for just £650,000 up front, rising to £2 million should certain performance targets be met. With Morrison’s contract running down, United had no stomach for the transfer tribunal lottery, and the Hammers secured a low-risk talent who has now bloomed into something far more valuable.
The transfer details are the easy part in the multi-faceted story of how one of the finest talents of the past generation left Old Trafford only to rise once again. Paraphrasing Paddy Crerand: Morrison was always ‘too good to fail’, unless his own troubles dragged him under.
Yet, here is a player, no matter the talent, who too often gave the impression of caring little for the game during four years spent in United’s academy. While Morrison’s tendency to drift out of matches has improved since appearing regularly for the east Londoners, the player’s attitude to training irked far too many at both Carrington and West Ham.
It took a loan spell in the Championship for the penny to finally drop – not just on the pitch and the training ground, but in his private life too. It seems as if Sir Alex’ promise to Allardyce has come true – that if the Midlander could “sort this lad out” he would “have one of the best players he’d ever had” on his hands.
“Sir Alex let Ravel go for his own benefit,” Allardyce said ahead of West Ham’s trip to United on Saturday.
“He said that if he comes down to you, hopefully he will find a new life and a new way of living. His ability will then start to come through because all he asks and all he wants in his life is to play first-team football, that was all he said he wanted to do and why he wanted to leave.
“In actual fact, he struggled to look like he was capable of playing football in the first team with us. That’s why we sent him on loan to Birmingham and I thought since that year, he’s grown up. Somewhere along the line, the lad has woken up and I think he’s changed himself and delivered.”
In a sense any comparison with Morrison is to Adnan Januzaj’s detriment. After all, Morrison made just three substitute appearances in the United first team. The Englishman did little at the highest level to garner such excitement from United’s support – even if that is a fatuous observation given the talent available.
Januzaj, by contrast, has already sparkled during his début season in the first team. The Belgian-born youngster spent just one campaign at each of the academy and reserve levels before progressing under new manager David Moyes.
Two goals at Sunderland and another on Saturday in United’s victory over Morrison’s Hammers have come amid 11 Premier League appearances. Like Morrison before him, Januzaj possesses the gifts to achieve almost anything in the game.
On Saturday it was Januzaj whose presence counted though, while Morrison suffered as part of a West Ham team that was rarely in touch with the home side. Morrison was neat in possession, occupying a central midfield role alongside Jack Collison and Mark Noble, but rarely drifted into the attacking areas where he is able to influence most.
Meanwhile, Januzaj received fewer touches in a wide role, but scored a crucial second goal just before the half-time break, while seeing four further attempts blocked by the massed Hammers’ defence. One more piece of evidence in a burgeoning case that Januzaj is destined for the very top.
“Adnan Januzaj is doing really well,” said Moyes after the game. “We are always hard on him, we always want more but he is doing remarkably well. He is a real talent.”
That he is although the narrative is not yet complete – Januzaj has time to turn initial promise into consistent excellence. Few doubt that he will, although the pitfalls are many.
Aside from a questionable attitude, Morrison’s indiscretions came largely off the pitch – two a well publicised court cases, resulting in a referral order for witness intimidation and a criminal conviction for criminal damage. Meanwhile, Januzaj has courted controversy having twice seen yellow this season for simulation. The Kosovan-Belgian might have garnered more in what is threatening to become an embarrassing habit.
Still, Moyes is in little mood to chide the youngster, not least while Januzaj remains on average the most consistently fouled player in the league – attracting 38 fouls in 12 matches this season.
“We will talk to him about it but you might be picking on the wrong person because if you look at the last two games, he has taken more tackles than any other player,” said Moyes.
“Last week there were a lot of people having a kick at him because he’s very difficult to mark. He’s elusive the way he moves and it can bring defenders into tackles.”
Morrison also possesses that enigmatic ability – a knack of drifting past players with classy ease. It led the 20-year-old to score one of the most memorable goals of the season against Tottenham Hotspur in October. It was, in a sense, a reminder of the talent lost to United.
In the spirit of reminiscence Januzaj’s rise is also a note to young Morrison: here’s what you could have won. Indeed, when Tom Cleverley says that the United man has “special potential and the fans love him” it is a comment that could have been made of Morrison during almost any period of the player’s time in Manchester.
“He’s settled in really quickly, he’s got a great attitude and a promising future ahead,” concluded Cleverley. Words that can only be applied to Januzaj. For the moment at least.
Admittedly it is a little churlish, but there’s nothing quite like winning to prove the fickle nature of fandom. With 15 minutes to go, Stoke City 2-1 up at Old Trafford on Saturday, David Moyes was under intense pressure. Little wonder after Manchester United’s most traumatic start to a campaign in the past decade. Two attacking substitutions later and a sense of momentum has developed around the club; comprehensive victory over Norwich City on Tuesday only creates renewed belief after three wins on the spin and a run of six games unbeaten.
The Reds haven’t metamorphosed from Champions to whipping boys, and back again, inside three months, although Moyes’ start to life at Old Trafford has been anything but positive. Indeed, a pervading sense that United had gone backwards this summer was catalysed by an incomprehensibly shambolic approach to the transfer market, and reinforced with three Premier League defeats in the opening six games.
After 25 years of success under Sir Alex Ferguson, Moyes – conservative, frustrating Moyes – had not only found a way to lose, but to do it in distinctly un-Manchester United fashion. To paraphrase Guardian journalist Daniel Harris, only three things had changed from the team that won the Premier League by 11 points last season: a player acquired by Moyes, the coaches Moyes brought in, and Moyes.
Yet, the late draw with Southampton, followed by a positive performance against Real Sociedad, and victories over Stoke and Norwich, has put a halt, for the moment at least, to the aura of negativity. After all, while United’s performances over the last six matches have sparkled only in bursts, results do count.
During that period Southampton dominated for much of the second period at Old Trafford, while United’s performance at home to Stoke was one of the most demoralising in recent seasons, save for the final 12 dramatic minutes. Even the Reds’ comfortable victory over La Real in Europe came not without moments of opposition-induced panic.
Yet, Moyes’ outfit now travels to Fulham at the weekend, then Sociedad in midweek, in the belief that qualification for the Champions League knock-out stages can be achieved, and a more solid Premier League footing established.
For a new regime the self belief that victory brings counts; a sense of momentum essential.
“You need to go on runs in this league and this club is the best in the business at building that,” said assistant manager Steve Round after United’s 4-0 victory on Tuesday night.
“This club has a winning mentality. There were no great celebrations after Saturday’s Stoke win and none tonight. There will be teams on the end of some big scores from us because we’ve got that capability and we’ve got that firepower right the way through the squad.”
There is no little irony in United’s new-found confidence stemming, in large part, from the performances of a rookie, but 18-year-old Adnan Januzaj has certainly inspired his more experienced colleagues. Hugely impactful as a second-half substitute against Stoke at the weekend, Januzaj’s headline-grabbing performance in Capital One Cup victory over Norwich on Tuesday was the most assured from a United youngster in some time.
The teenager’s flexibility has played a role too – confidence on the right to fashion late pressured at home to Stoke, while his abundant maturity in possession from a classic number 10 role dominated proceedings against an admittedly timid Norwich. More impressive still, Januzaj ‘s ability to dictate both the tempo and pattern of United’s play on Tuesday came in a manner that Wayne Rooney has not always replicated this season.
It is this flexibility to play across any of the front positions that will ensure Januzaj gains plenty of first team football this season, although fans will hope that it comes without the ensuing pitfalls of failing to settle in any one role.
“We see him as a number seven, 10 or 11. He can play any of those three,” said Round.
“If you ask our Reserves coach [Warren Joyce], who had him last season, he’d say he felt his best position was number nine. He played there for the Reserves. So any of the top four positions he is capable of playing in.
“For a young player like Adnan, we’re trying to give him as much experience as we possibly can and develop him in numerous different positions and give him different ideas and thoughts about the way he should be playing.”
Januzaj has appeared just eight times for the club, including three starts, yet is already being discussed in the same breath as teenage stars Ryan Giggs, Cristiano Ronaldo and Rooney. The tendency to revert to hyperbole is rife, of course, but on occasion it is surely beholded to supporters to enjoy genuine emergent talent.
Meanwhile, United’s cup win also brought confidence to those players on the fringes this season, including Javier Hernández, Wilfried Zaha and Fabio da Sila.
While the Brazilian did not start, much to many fans’ surprise, his late goal brought a rare moment of joy in an otherwise frustrating season for the youngster. Little more than two years ago Fabio started the Champions League final against Barcelona at Wembley. His career has rarely looked so positive since.
Hernández, meanwhile, scored twice to underline the Mexican’s instinctive ability to finish is not lessened by lengthy spells on United’s substitutes bench. That the 25-year-old will almost certainly drop out of the side for the Reds’ visit to Fulham on Saturday is an indication of his continued status within the squad.
Then there was Zaha, whose positive performance was overshadowed by that of Januzaj, but should earn the England international a shot at a place on United’s bench at least.
Zaha remains raw, and his inability to understand when to retain possession, when to pass and when to beat his man, is a frustration. Still, the former Crystal Palace winger remained positive throughout, beating Norwich left-back Javier Garrido inside minutes to stamp some early authority on the game. The talent is present, with responsibility now incumbent on Moyes and his team to coax the best out of the youngster.
“I was really pleased for Wilf to get a start and play so well,” added Round. “He got a bit tired at the end so we replaced him. But this will have done his confidence the world of good and he’s gone out there and experienced what it’s like to win at Old Trafford.”
Indeed, much the same can be said for United after victories over Sociedad, Stoke and Norwich in successive home games. The key to retaining that momentum is to repeat the result in upcoming away fixtures against Fulham and Sociedad, before Arsenal visit in less than a fortnight’s time. Victory over the Gunners would breed confidence in another level again.
Legendary Italian player Paolo Maldini was 35-years-old when asked if he still got nervous ahead of matches. “It’s much worse now”, he replied, “when you’re young, you don’t really care about all the fuss, you just want to prove yourself.” There’s probably a lot to learn from Maldini, and even more so when last Saturday’s game against Sunderland and subsequent goals from youngster Adnan Januzaj are put in to context.
Unlike many senior Manchester United players, the young Belgian-Albanian seemed to enjoy his football, looking eager to prove himself. There was no stress as Januzaj took two beautiful goals. The first a fine pass out to Patrice Evra on the left, with Sunderland hardman Lee Cattermole snipping at the young attacker’s heels, followed by a well-timed run in to the box and nice finish with his right. Januzaj’s second was even better when a poor John O’Shea clearance was hammered into the corner with a volley even Robin van Persie would have been proud of.
There’s no denying Januzaj a run in the first team now, not after Saturday’s display, especially if David Moyes considers Ashley Young to be the youngster’s main competitor on United’s left! England international Young hasn’t performed well in the United shirt since the Reds beat Manchester City at Ethiad in December, almost a year ago. Moyes probably realises this too, which perhaps is why Young was nowhere to be seen last weekend.
The soon-to-be-out-of-contract Januzaj actually became the youngest ever to score two goals in a Premier League game Saturday evening, so if Moyes and executive vice chairman Ed Woodward know a bit about what they’re doing – and the jury is still definitely out – they’ll make sure the youngster signs a lengthy, and profitable, contract extension. The club can ill afford another Paul Pogba situation.
Can you actually win something with kids; perhaps Moyes should look to Januzaj and other United starlets to save this so far dismal season? It’s not as if blame can be attached to any of the squad’s younger players for United’s tepid season start.
Take Rio Ferdinand, for example, who was omitted from the squad against Sunderland with a groin strain. The England international has been at fault for much that’s been going on in United’s defence this season. Both of Bayern Leverkusen’s goals in the Champions League came from Rio’s mistakes, and the same argument can be made of West Bromwich Albion’s goals at Old Trafford.
Which begs the question: where’s Johnny Evans? Thoroughly solid two seasons on the trot, the Northern Irishman seems to be another of United’s forgotten men after his comfortable display in his first game this season against Liverpool in the league cup. Maybe Moyes blames the international for United’s shock defeat against WBA?
Phil Jones should perhaps have done better when Sunderland scored the opening goal last Saturday, but United captain Nemanja Vidic won’t be pleased with the way he handed Craig Gardner the opening goal. And hasn’t Chris Smalling been pretty much outstanding when given the chance this campaign? Perhaps a little more faith in youth at the back is the way forward, while playing with some enthusiasm like Rafael Da Silva would be nice.
Januzaj might not be the sole bright young spot on offer for United this season. It was, after all, a masterclass save from ‘keeper David De Gea with the score still at 1-0 to the home side that kept United in the game.
And Tom ‘TC23’ Cleverley might deserve a few more games next to Michael Carrick in the centre of the park after two decent performances against Shaktar Donetsk and the second half against Sunderland. At least the Englishman brings a bit more energy than Marouane Fellaini, who so far seems to only be very good at passing the ball back to Carrick, or even further back towards one of United’s defenders.
Perhaps another one to claim a future place next to Carrick could be the attacking midfielder Jesse Lingard, who’s on loan to Birmingham City in the Championship until the end of October. Lingard proved during this summer’s marketing tour – formerly known as “preseason” – that he knows how to shoot, so there seems little to lose in offering the youngster time when the loan deal expires. Four goals in his first game for the Brummies prompted the experienced Birmingham assistant manager Terry McDermott to say it was the best debut he had ever seen.
Then there is Nick Powell, the first player to ever have scored a goal for Wigan Athletic in Europe – a player that was hailed by Crewe Alexandra legend Dario Gradi as one of the finest to emerge from the club’s acknowledged academy.
It is not too much to ask that talents such as Januzaj, Lingard and Powell are given a chance ahead of those that have been given many, but failed to impress. If only to make sure the senior players know that their places are under threat. After all, the aforementioned Pogba went from United’s bench to star at Juventus – it should never happen again.
It also might not be a bad idea to give Wilfried Zaha a first team debut sometime soon. The youngster could show a tad more creative spark than the ultra boring Antonio Valencia, a player that Patrice Evra once described by saying “I think he ate a motor!” Some how the Ecuadorian who has “eaten a motor” now fails to track back, pass opposition defenders or properly cross the ball. Maybe the motor is depleted?
Meanwhile, many seem to think that want-away star Wayne Rooney has been United’s finest so far, but his form is surely vastly overrated. The Scouser’s touch doesn’t look good – always a barometer – and running around like a very rich man’s Carlos Tevez isn’t going to win United enough matches, nor trophies, unless is for appreciating “effort” above all else.
Sadly, Rooney’s new-found striking partner Robin van Persie doesn’t look all that fit either, not after fluffing the chance he had to score United’s third goal against Sunderland when the Dutchman was through one on one with the home side’s ‘keeper. van Persie in good form would score in a position like that. Possibly even in his sleep.
There is even an argument – a brutal one – that a younger guard in Danny Welbeck and Javier Hernández have earned a chance during the coming run of ‘favourable fixtures.’
“Manchester United has always relied hugely on young players and my priority will always be to promote these talents”, Moyes said this summer. Now is the time to prove it, David, and play your darlings!
It happened in barely a moment, Adnan Januzaj resetting his slight frame with such wonderful balance to drive John O’Shea’s headed clearance low into the bottom corner of Sunderland’s net. The 61st minute volley, so sweetly timed, secured Manchester United three valuable Premier League points at the Stadium of Light. It was barely a chance at all let alone one an 18-year-old freshman should put away on full début. Little wonder the hype cycle has hit its peak since Saturday night.
Yet, Januzaj’s technical ability comes as no surprise to those who have witnessed the Belgian’s growth in United’s reserve team over the past 18 months. It was always his readiness for action in the big leagues that remained in doubt – right up to Saturday’s epiphany. Doubts exist no more – the lightweight boy has become a featherweight man.
In truth Januzaj’s second in the north east wasn’t a half chance at all. Right foot planted, left driving through the floating ball with a precision that only comes with outstanding technical ability; an announcement to the world that a new talent has come of age. Say it loud, and say it proud.
Indeed, it is a measure of genuine impact that Januzaj’s winner relegates a beautifully crafted opening United goal to a comparative footnote in the memory.
The club, and especially manager David Moyes, will do everything to keep the hype to a trickle and Januzaj’s feet grounded. It is an impossible task; the tide was rising even before the teenager’s volley hit the net on Saturday and burst into life on Sunday’s back pages.
A tsunami now awaits, yet so cool appears the youngster’s temperament that in publicity there should be little fear for Januzaj’s progress, whatever difficulties might lie ahead. While only a rare breed among hyper-talented teenagers ever truly fulfills inflated expectations it is heart, not head, that dictates good money is already placed on this kid making it to the very top.
It is a bet Moyes desperately needs to land as well.
“I remember giving Wayne Rooney and Ross Barkley their debuts and Adnan is certainly in that quality,” said the 50-year-old in the aftermath of Saturday’s victory.
“Starting Adnan certainly wasn’t a gamble for me. I see Adnan in training every day, I saw him on tour and actually he’s even got better since coming back from the tour. I would have probably put him in the team three or four weeks ago. I just felt that until we got a bit of momentum into our play, I thought we had to wait. As it was, he’s looked as good as anybody in training.
“His goals were great. Two different types of goals. He’s a really good talent but Manchester United will keep his feet on the ground. Anybody who watches MUTV will have seen him play in the Reserves on Monday night against Bolton. And we’ll do that, we’ll try to bring him on at the right speed.”
In that there is a concern, of course. That Januzaj, like Paul Pogba before him, can walk away from the club before a new contract is signed, antecedent to the best of his talent ever emerging on Old Trafford’s green grass.
Undeniably, Moyes’ assertion that he’s “not too worried about the contract situation” and that “every young boy wants to play for Manchester United” raises little confidence. There is, after all, a global market for talent – and United is by no means the only show in town. There are, as Sir Alex Ferguson might put it, other cows, and more grass.
The club has trodden this path before. Ravel Morrison – another lost talent, albeit for very different reasons – is maturing at West Ham United. And with Pogba long gone the Reds are in real danger of losing three players of the very rarest order in unacceptably short succession.
Still, for the time being Moyes is smart enough to take the risk on Januzaj’s ability and to have rapidly phased in the player’s introduction. It might just transform United’s season, while on recent evidence the Scot will struggle to keep Januzaj out of team from here to next May. The kid could metamorphose the manager’s fortunes too.
“We’ll just make sure he’s not treated any different and try not to get the media too hyped up about him,” said Moyes. “But it’s difficult not to talk about a boy when he puts in a performance like that and he scores two goals. But he deserves it. He’s a really humble boy and grounded boy. I’ve not got too many fears about him. He is a special player.”
In the meantime it is not only the media engaging in embellishment, but senior pros too. Like Cristiano Ronaldo before him, there is a sense that Januzaj had won over his senior team-mates before kicking a ball in competitive anger. In professional sport there is nothing like talent to beget glowing respect.
“He’s done it on the big stage now,” said Michael Carrick, a man not normally known for hyperbole.
“He’s got so much ability, he’s got a great attitude too. He can be anything he wants to be. He’s that good, he’s got that chance. It’s just the start for him. I’m sure he’s not going to get carried away with it.
“His two finishes, the first was on his weaker foot, you would think. His second one was just a terrific volley. I was telling him at half-time to get in the box because there were chances for him. We’ve got a lot to thank him for. He’s won us the game.”
It certainly won’t be the last leaving Moyes with a delicate path to tread, from a manager’s natural caution, to a recognition that Januzaj’s time is very much now.
Still, there are plenty of reminders in United’s recent history of the differing paths a young player;s career can take. In Pogba there is a shining light, burning away from Old Trafford. The midfielder, now at Juventus, will make next summer’s French World Cup squad.
Then there is Morrison, a player of outstanding natural talent, whose off-the-field indiscretion forced United’s hand. The 20-year-old’s call-up to England under-21 duty was a gratefully received morsel of redemption this week – one celebrated with an outstanding individual effort against Tottenham Hotspur on Sunday.
Each in turn was hailed as United’s new midfield saviour. That a new Red faces the same sobriquet is no surprise. United supporters simply hope for a different outcome: a story that begins and ends at Old Trafford.