There was a period during David Moyes’ ill-fated reign as Manchester United manager when the progress of Belgium winger, Adnan Januzaj, stood as one of the few bright spots to have emerged from an otherwise disastrous campaign.
The Brussels-native, who moved to the United academy from Anderlecht as a 16-year-old in 2011, had made it to the fringes of the Red Devils’ senior squad during Sir Alex Ferguson’s final season as manager in 2012-13, but it was only under Moyes that he broke into the first-team and shot to international prominence after making a series of match-winning contributions in the Premier League.
On the occasion of his first league start in October, 2013, for instance, Januzaj struck twice as United came from behind to beat Sunderland 1-2 at the Stadium of Light and he went on to make 24 further top-flight appearances in the 2013-14 campaign, contributing three more goals and four assists, while featuring in both domestic cup competitions and in the Champions League.
It is a testament to the scale of the teenager’s impact at Old Trafford that Ligue 1 champions Paris Saint-Germain bid to sign him in the winter transfer window in 2014, and United responded to that interest tying Januzaj down to a new, five-year contract which made him the highest-paid young footballer in the world.
“I can say Adnan’s the best paid youngster in the world,” his agent, Dirk De Vries, said after deal was signed. “He earns more than [Cristiano] Ronaldo and [Lionel] Messi when they were 18. It [moving to PSG] could have been interesting from a commercial point of view. But money has never been a deciding factor in his choice.”
Januzaj rounded-off an exceptional breakthrough season by being selected for the Belgium World Cup squad (rejecting interest from Kosovo, Albania, Turkey, Serbia, and even England, for whom he was also potentially eligible to represent), and although Moyes’ sacking cast some uncertainty over his United future, the fact that the club appointed a famed developer of young talent, Louis van Gaal, as new manager and handed Januzaj the No. 11 shirt previously worn by assistant coach Ryan Giggs made it seem as though he was set to progress to another level in 2014-15.
Januzaj appeared to possess all of the attributes required to establish himself as a first-choice United winger for the coming decade. His sharp turn of pace, exceptional close-control, positional intelligence, and creative vision more than compensated for a slight, still adolescent frame, and one felt that more game time would have inevitably refined the Belgian’s decision-making and composure on front of goal.
Performances such as Januzaj’s man-of-the-match showing against Hull in May, 2014, lent weight to the United coaching staff’s belief that the forward was on the path to becoming the club’s first Post-Fergie superstar, and Moyes, not a man given to superlatives, went so far as to parallel the Belgian to Ajax legend, Johan Cruyff.
“Some youngsters get overawed. Not Adnan. I realised that when he came to train with the first team soon after I joined,” Moyes told FourFourTwo.
“He possesses a level of self-assured arrogance, which is a positive as he’s not too arrogant. He’s a wonderfully gifted player with great balance and the ability to go past people. When I see his poise on the ball, he has characteristics of Johan Cruyff.”
It quickly became clear, however, that Van Gaal did not share Moyes’ belief in Januzaj.
The Belgian made only seven league starts for United in the 2014-15 campaign and only completed 90 minutes on four occasions. Indeed, 11 of Januzaj’s 18 Premier League appearances in his first season under Van Gaal were as a substitute and it was clear by February, 2015, when the winger was not named in United’s 18-man squad for an FA Cup fourth-round replay with Cambridge United, that Van Gaal did not see a clear role for him in the starting side.
“Yes, the system can make it more difficult for me to play there but I have to keep working,” Januzaj said when asked if he felt it unfortunate that Van Gaal’s formations do not always accommodate attacking wide players. “That is what I am doing in training every day, as I want to get more games this season.”
Januzaj was linked with a temporary move away from Old Trafford throughout the summer and perhaps the most powerful demonstration of Van Gaal’s lack of faith in the forward came after he netted United’s winning goal in a 0-1 away win at Aston Villa on the second day of the season – his first goal for the club in over a year.
Instead of praising the youngster at full-time and affording him further opportunities in the starting side, Van Gaal subbed Januzaj off on the hour mark and criticized his ability to retain possession.
“All the other aspects of football you have to show also [not just scoring goals],” Van Gaal said at full-time. “We had too many unnecessary ball losses. That was not only Adnan Januzaj, but also Memphis Depay and Wayne Rooney, a lot of players I can say. We have to improve that.”
Just over two weeks later, Januzaj was moved out to Borussia Dortmund on a season-long loan deal.
The move looked a good one for the Belgian: his Manchester United career had stagnated and, in Thomas Tuchel, he possessed the opportunity to work with a coach famed for his ability to develop young players at the club which brought forward talent such as Mario Götze, Marco Reus, and Robert Lewandowski to footballing maturity in recent seasons.
Surprisingly, though, the loan never worked out: Januzaj started in only three of his 12 appearances at BVB and all six of his Bundesliga appearances came as a substitute. The loan agreement was terminated yesterday evening.
This leaves Januzaj in a very delicate position in terms of his future career.
Despite United’s current struggles, it is difficult to envision a manager as tactically stubborn as Van Gaal performing any kind of U-turn on Januzaj, particularly when Anthony Martial and Jesse Lingard have broken into the first-team during the Belgian’s absence. While there will certainly be no shortage of clubs eager to sign a player of Januzaj’s profile, the manner in which his progress has stalled over the last 18 months makes it difficult to see his next move being to a Champions League-level side.
It may well now be the case that Januzaj has to take a step back in his career and rebuild his reputation, form, and fitness at a lower level before bidding to fulfill the potential he showed under Moyes as a teenager at an elite side.
For as long as Van Gaal remains in charge at Old Trafford, it seems unlikely that he will be afforded the opportunity to do so in Manchester.
[Photo by Alex Livesey/Getty Images]