The 20-year-old’s loan spell at Borussia Dortmund was disappointing, but the Belgian could offer Louis van Gaal a much-needed injection of pace and creativity. But first he needs to gain his manager’s trust
Adnan Januzaj had won the game for Manchester United. At Villa Park in August a stuttering team performance had been alighted by the young Belgian’s goal. It came from directness and aggression, Januzaj slicing through Aston Villa, getting a bit of luck from a deflection and curling a finish past Brad Guzan.
Afterwards though, Louis Van Gaal was clearly far from impressed. “Yes, he scored a wonderful goal, but there is more than scoring a goal,” said the Dutchman. “He had a lot of ball losses, as did his team mates.” Januzaj had already been expected to be moved out on loan at the beginning of the season and less than two weeks later, following a quieter 70 minutes against Newcastle, he was gone, moved out on loan to Borussia Dortmund.
Januzaj, at that point at least, was evidently not his manager’s cup of tea. His style did not appear to fit the van Gaal gameplan. Daring. Unpredictable. Anything but risk-averse. For those – and by now, they must be a large majority – United fans and onlookers desperate for some forward momentum it must have been an discouraging move so soon after the 21-year-old had dragged United over the line at Villa.
The loan spell was disastrous, cut short two months after Dortmund insisted they would do nothing of the sort. Januzaj failed to start a single league game in Germany and his attitude was questioned by manager Thomas Tuchel. “It is a pity he did not show the desire and attitude you need to progress at his age,” he said. “My feeling was that he never was completely with us, that a part of him always stayed in Manchester and he compared everything here with United. We were not able to help him to shake that off.”
The move to Dortmund in the first place was a curious one. Van Gaal never wanted Januzaj to go to Germany, fearing the Belgian would see little game time. “In a club like Borussia Dortmund all the players there are also of a certain level and I said in advance that’s a big risk for you because you have to compete with other players of a higher level and that is not so easy,” said van Gaal in November, as Januzaj languished behind Marcos Reus, Shinji Kagawa, Ilkay Gundogan, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Henrikh Mkhitaryan in the midfield pecking order.
“It’s the same thing as in Manchester United. He has to compete with higher level players. I want him to play all the matches and that is why I want to play him also in the Premier League but he chose Borussia Dortmund.” Considering van Gaal’s fearsome reputation, it seems odd that he was unable to persuade Januzaj to stay in the Premier League.
Januzaj’s short career has already seen its fair share of controversy. The Belgian is evidently a divisive player, with various connected parties having had shouting matches through the press over the players conduct and future. There have been, for example, suggestions beyond Tuchel’s criticism that Januzaj, or at least his father and agent, may have an inflated opinion of his worth. In early November Enzo Scifo, the Belgium Under-21s coach, criticised the player for refusing a call-up for a European Championship qualifier with the Czech Republic. “A 20-year-old player who gives this impression of non-motivation, it reflects a poor state of mind,” said Scifo. “I would normally speak to him, but I don’t have a good feeling about this.
“I’m not condemning him because he is young. He might react in six months, a year or two. I hope it won’t be too late for him. I dislike that a player is not motivated. The under-21s aren’t a pub team! When you’re 20, you have to be humble enough to understand that on your own. You can’t ask your dad or your agent if it’s a good choice or not.”
“There is no question of a bad state of mind,” retorted the player’s agent Dirk de Vriese, who argued that his client had declined the opportunity so he could focus on working his way into the Dortmind side. “This decision is part of the project. Adnan focuses on his work and we plan the rest. Do not point the finger.”
In 2013, during the international tug-of-war over his future, a spat also developed between the Belgium coach Marc Wilmots and Januzaj’s father Adelin. For player not yet 21 years of age, there has been a considerable amount of controversy around him. Yet the player himself has remained quiet.
Where does he go from here? Januzaj has admitted that his preferred position is in the number 10 role where, against Villa and Newcastle, he offered the only pacey option in a team that included the comparatively slower combination of Wayne Rooney, Juan Mata, Michael Carrick, Memphis Depay and Morgan Schneiderlin. However, with Jesse Lingard, Ander Herrera and Anthony Martial now providing the speed – though with limited success, it should be noted – Januzaj has his work cut out for him and will immediately be on the outside looking in. With Lingard’s form having been patchy in the last few weeks, it may be the young academy graduate who the Belgian has the best chance of unseating.
It all adds up to an uncertain future for Januzaj. One suspects he has an awful lot to do to convince van Gaal that he will be a fit for the Dutchman’s plan. But he has started well – an impressive performance for United’s Under-21s was capped with two goals last week – and that may encourage van Gaal to at least offer Januzaj a substitute appearance this afternoon at Southampton. It would be the beginning of a rocky road back.