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Adnan Januzaj: The Boy Genius Who Flattered to Deceive

Adnan Januzaj while playing for Man United
Credit: Stu Forster/Getty Images

“I always knew I had the quality to play for Manchester United. I know what I am capable of.” In November 2018, Adnan Januzaj, once hailed by the Stretford End as the wing wizard heir to the throne vacated by Ryan Giggs, claimed that the Red Devils never gave him a fair chance after he had burst into the first team on a wave of optimism and promise of greatness to come. Is such a claim substantiated by fact though? It’s a question yet to be resolved as the 23-year-old – still arguably with his prime years to come – seeks to resurrect a stalled career at Real Sociedad in Spain’s Basque Country.

Making his full debut for United in October 2013, Januzaj would net a brace against Sunderland to set the pulses racing for the fans brought up on the club’s ability to produce players with attacking flair and a penchant for goals. Was this another one from the Old Trafford production line? A move worthy of the aforementioned Giggs and finish against West Ham United underlined his potential, but an early tendency to hit the ground in debatable circumstances also brought yellow cards for alleged ‘simulation’ in the same games was something that needed addressing. That first season brought him 35 appearances and four goals.

The new term would see him gifted the famous number 11 short worn by Giggs. It’s possible that the weight of expectation added by being inevitably compared to the mercurial Welshman took a toll on the young Januzaj, or it may have been that the levels of expectation had run far away in front of what was, in reality, being seen on the pitch. For whatever reason, his best times with Manchester United were already behind him.

It’s difficult to appreciate to what extent managerial upheavals at clubs, so unused to such things, can disturb the equilibrium of a player. Sir Alex Ferguson had been the bedrock upon which the success of Manchester United had been built and the players that came through the club under his charge had that stability to support their progress. As Moyes, Giggs himself for a period, and then Louis van Gaal took turns in the Scotsman’s old seat, such stability was broadly absent and would certainly not have been beneficial to a young and impressionable player seeking to make his way in the game, burdened by a weight of expectation. In his first season wearing Giggs’ old shirt, 21 appearances brought not a single strike and questions were inevitably raised about whether the massive potential that had been identified – for good or ill – would ever be realised.

A season on loan in the Bundesliga with Borussia Dortmund was thought to hold possible recuperative powers, but a dozen games without a goal suggested otherwise and seven appearances with just a single strike for United in the same term completed a sorry 2015-16 season. The career of Adnan Januzaj was now at a crossroads. The manager who had given him his first breakthrough opportunity at Old Trafford though clearly thought there was still a talent to be tapped in Januzaj as David Moyes, now ensconced at the Stadium of Light, took him to Sunderland on loan.

In his third game for the club, he scored the winner in a League Cup tie against Shrewsbury Town, but it was the only bright spot in a dark period with the Black Cats. A sending-off and injuries punctuated his opportunities there and, at the end of the loan period, a less than totally impressed Moyes was compelled to concede that the level of performances delivered in the North-East were hardly sufficient to convince Januzaj’s parent club that there was a big future awaiting when he returned to Manchester.

In May 2017, José Mourinho became the next in line to sip from the poisoned chalice offered to those tempted to follow in the footsteps of Ferguson. Two months later, Adnan Januzaj’s time at Manchester United was brought to an end. The incoming manager wrote off any prospect of him having a future role in the new regime and he was offloaded to the Basques of Real Sociedad.

There was a neat symmetry in his first season with the La Liga club, when comparing it to his debut term at Old Trafford; thirty-five appearance and four goals exactly mirroring what he achieved when he burst onto the scene for Manchester United. Much as the second season in red failed to see that promise develop however, so it was in the Txuri-urdinak of Sociedad. To the end of January, 16 games have brought just one additional goal.

Few would doubt that there have been glimpses of brilliance sprinkled across Januzaj’s career. The goal he notched for Belgium against England in the recent World Cup, evading Danny Rose before lashing a curling shot past Jordan Pickford was a reminder to fans in England of a burgeoning talent that threatened to sweep all before it just a few short years previously, but whether such glory will now ever flourish in a consistent way is highly questionable.

The jury is out for a player whose record across times with Manchester United and Real Sociedad reads 142 appearances, ten goals and 19 assists. For those who advocate that Manchester United was very much the right club for the young forward to be at, but his time was benighted by managerial change and instability, there’s only so long that such an argument can be sustained. Whether Adnan Januzaj was a boy genius jettisoned too soon or someone who only flattered to deceive remains to be concluded, but passing time inevitably leans matters increasingly heavily towards the latter.

About the author

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Gary Thacker

Now living in Spain, Gary is the author of two books about football and writes for a number of high profile magazines and websites. He also appears regularly on podcast and had worked for BBC Radio and talkSPORT. In 2017, he was shortlisted for the FSF 'Blogger of the year' award.

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