It marked exactly 50 years since George Best made his professional début for Manchester United on Saturday, an occasion which United marked with a 2-0 win over Crystal Palace. It was a game unfortunately overshadowed by a controversial penalty awarded to Ashley Young which turned the game in United’s favour, eclipsing the cameo role of their bright new young prospect, Adnan Januzaj.
It was the 67th minute when Januzaj was introduced, the home side 1 up to a Palace side shorn of a man after Kagisho Digkacoi was sent off for his first-half entanglement with Young, to a performance that was efficient from United but with little in the way of adventure or guile. Then came Januzaj, offering a bright spark with energetic runs that first saw him pull the ball back for Wayne Rooney to waste with a lob, before drawing a free-kick from which Rooney bent home the second goal.
It left David Moyes full of plaudits for the 18 year old and fellow Belgian Marouane Fellaini also singing his praises for a display that eased some of the concerns that a frustrating summer in the transfer window had left United lacking in the creative department of midfield. There was enough from the 20 minute show to suggest a solution could come in the form of the promising Januzaj who is sure to be given more chances as United’s schedule becomes busier in the coming weeks.
Born in Brussels to Kosovar-Albanian parents, Januzaj joined Anderlecht as a ten year old before leaving them for Manchester United 6 years later after being noticed at a skills session over in Brussels. United paid Anderlecht £500,000 for his services back in 2011.
The youngster has been a regular in Manchester United’s reserve teams since. Though a serious injury interrupted his first year in the team, meaning he could only participate in the latter stages of the FA Youth Cup.
His second year saw him break into Manchester United’s under-21 side where he became a regular, earning praise from both age-level coach Warren Joyce and Sir Alex Ferguson. “Adnan is a beautifully-balanced technical player,” he said “He has to grow into his frame but he he has good balance, good acceleration and is a very good player”, admiring him so much he handed him a senior squad number last season, though he was restricted to just one bench appearance, failing to make it onto the field against West Brom in Ferguson’s last game as manager.
His performances in attacking midfield helped United win the under-21 league and after Ferguson’s departure, it became clear how highly Moyes rated the talent he had inherited. Including him in his squad for the pre-season tour of the far-east, Januzaj got his first senior goal in the victory over FC Kitchee and turned in a series of impressive performances, leading to his competitive début coming off the bench against Wigan in the Community Shield.
The 18 year old is one of the floating midfield players that are currently en vogue, able to play right across midfield in advanced positions, starting games from the right side, even though he is naturally left-footed, and drifting into pockets of space in attack. His style of play has earned comparisons and bares similarities to Shinji Kagawa, United’s technically gifted Japanese attacking midfielder.
Januzaj’s games is based around an excellent awareness that allows him to move into gaps where he can hurt opposition defences either with incisive runs, like the one that earned Rooney’s free-kick on Saturday lunchtime, or probing passes into the strikers as a result of his impressive vision. His delicate touch, fantastic balance and close control allows him to receive the ball in tight areas and move the ball on quickly, always looking for space between the lines.
His direct, cutting runs also means he is at home on the wing, usually the right-side, an asset to Moyes who has always been a fan of players providing width to stretch defenders and create space for others. Staff at Old Trafford have been particularly impressed by his willingness to succeed and establish himself as a regular in Moyes’s squad, something that was present in his words after the game with Palace on Saturday; “I just tried to do my best. Of course, I want more games to play and I hope I will have another chance to play for the first team. If I have the chance then I will give everything for the club.” said the young Belgian.
Januzaj’s physical build is the only trait stifling his progress at the moment, the general consensus at United’s Carrington training ground base being that he Belgian’s slender frame needs bulking up if he is to cope regularly with the demands of the Premier League.
The injuries Januzaj suffered in his first year at the club remain in the memory of the coaching staff and the task is to get the Belgian physically ready for his transition to senior football at United. “Adnan is still developing but there’s no doubt he’s got talent too. He’s got a good footballing brain and a good touch. We’re trying to get him stronger and fitter and he’s getting to know the Manchester United style of play as well.” said Warren Joyce, who has been monitoring his progress first-hand as coach of the under-21 side at Old Trafford.
With Januzaj impressing and Moyes not averse to handing his starlet opportunities, the temptation to send the 18 year old out on loan, with Blackburn potential suitors for the youngster, may be a receding one, but Moyes will have to work hard to keep Januzaj away from the clutches of neighbours Manchester City.
The Etihad club are reportedly interested in taking the Belgian across the City with his contract due to expire in the summer and with the player yet to sign a new deal, staff at Old Trafford will have to endeavour to avoid losing Januzaj in the same way they lost Paul Pogba to Juventus the summer before last. That will including handing the Belgian the first-team opportunities the glimpses of his talents have shown he warrants.
“He’s grown up a certain way and I think he has had a tremendous education over in Belgium. He’s come over here with good technique and is desperate to be a footballer as well so he’s got a lot of things going for him.” said Joyce.
From what he has shown previously as well as in the display against Crystal Palace, he’ll definitely become a professional footballer, but whether it is at Old Trafford or not remains to be seen.