It was the autumn of 2013 and Adnan Januzaj’s decision to sign a five-year contract cast a ray of hope through the gloom of David Moyes’s early tenure at Manchester United.
‘I’m delighted that Adnan has committed his future to United. His balance, poise and ability to beat players is truly exceptional for a boy of his age. It’s great that he recognises that this club, with its tradition for developing young players and giving them a chance on the biggest stage, is the best place for him to be.’ – David Moyes, October 2013
As Adnan Januzaj heads for the Old Trafford exit and to a new life in Spain, those words from Moyes strike a particular chord.
It was the autumn of 2013 and Januzaj’s decision to sign a five-year contract cast a ray of hope through the gloom of Moyes’s early tenure at United.
Adnan Januzaj has departed Manchester United and signed for Real Sociedad
Januzaj was heralded as a future United star by then manager David Moyes
And Januzaj looked the part - he was a rare bright spot in the miserable Moyes reign
The club and their new manager were struggling in the post-Ferguson era, and Marouane Fellaini had arrived as the only summer signing. United needed some inspiration, an injection of optimism, and Januzaj was the young man to provide it. Two weeks earlier he had stolen the show with a bravura, two-goal performance at Sunderland on his full Premier League debut.
A club that has always loved its wingers had a new darling, and Januzaj had United over a barrel. Talk of interest from Paris Saint-Germain was already circulating and new United chief Ed Woodward simply couldn’t allow the boy to slip through his fingers. Januzaj was awarded a five-year contract worth £60,000-a-week, a huge figure at that stage of his career.
It wasn’t just United who were getting over-excited about the Belgian-born teenager of Kosovar-Albanian descent either. Roy Hodgson floated the idea of Januzaj making England’s squad for the 2014 World Cup before the player chose Belgium.
Nearly four years on from the day Januzaj signed that contract, flanked by Woodward and Moyes, the outlook is rather different. Two loan spells at Sunderland – ironically playing under Moyes at the Stadium of Light where he first demonstrated his genius to the world – and Borussia Dortmund have failed to revive a flagging career.
A £9.8million move to Real Sociedad beckons and the thought of Januzaj leaving Old Trafford at the age of 22 will be met with mild indifference.
So where has it all gone wrong for the young man who once drew comparisons with Johan Cruyff from Moyes?
Was it a case of too much too soon when he landed the lucrative new contract? Very possibly. Some players can take these things in their stride, bank the money and focus on their fledgling careers.
Januzaj lost his way at United and ended up having two loan spells at Sunderland
Januzaj also left United for a loan at Dortmund but did not impress in Germany
Others get distracted by the lifestyle, and Januzaj certainly wouldn’t be the first or the last to fall into that trap. His attitude has been called into question, notably during that ill-fated stay at Dortmund, and opportunities to get back on track have undoubtedly been spurned.
The change of manager at United did not help him either as Moyes was axed just six months after Januzaj committed his future to the club.
Louis van Gaal’s more prosaic style had no room for the free spirit and enterprise of the young man who inherited Ryan Giggs’ No 11 shirt that summer. There was even talk that he upset his manager by trying to score direct from corners in an Under 21 fixture against Sunderland as part of a contest with teammate Andreas Pereira.
Januzaj drifted to the periphery under Van Gaal. His only goal for the Dutchman came in the opening game of the following season, a wonderful effort at Aston Villa. But he was sent out on loan the following month, going against his manager’s advice by joining Dortmund instead of staying in England.
He didn’t start a single Bundesliga game for the club and the loan was cut short after just five months with Januzaj pining for home.
‘A part of him was always still in Manchester and we just couldn’t help him cut this umbilical cord,’ admitted Borussia boss Thomas Tuchel later. ‘He didn’t wholly embrace Borussia. He always compared everything with how it had been at United.’
When Jose Mourinho replaced Van Gaal, he privately questioned the player’s attitude and ability to make the most of his undoubted ability. His No 11 shirt was handed to Anthony Martial and the decision was made to send him out on loan to Sunderland.
‘He fits in my plans, which is why he's on loan at a Premier League club,’ was Mourinho’s unconvincing explanation. ‘We care about him and think he's a talented player. Hopefully everything will go well for him because we want him back.’
Again, it was not an ideal situation for Januzaj. It was clear from the start that Sunderland were going to struggle to survive in the Premier League and a grim relegation battle lay ahead – hardly the ideal environment for his talents to flourish.
If Moyes was hoping that Januzaj would repay his faith again, he was disappointed. The gifted youngster made little impact and was said to have caused consternation among his teammates with his lack of effort. Sunderland were relegated and Januzaj’s stock sank further too.
Januzaj only scored once under Louis van Gaal, earning United a 1-0 win at Aston Villa
Jose Mourinho watched Januzaj's latest loan to Sunderland from afar and was not impressed
Januzaj's United tenure ultimately went the same way as fellow winger Memphis Depay
Mourinho was watching from afar and in April confirmed that he had made up his mind about the player. Januzaj was finished at United and will shortly become a Real Sociedad player, the latest winger to fall flat at Old Trafford in the eight years since Cristiano Ronaldo left. Think Bebe, Gabriel Obertan, Wilfried Zaha, Angel Di Maria and Memphis Depay.
As with Depay’s move to Lyon in January, United could include a buy-back option in the deal that takes Januzaj to Spain. But it would be an insurance policy not part of a long-term plan to bring him back.
The days of United banking on Adnan Januzaj to deliver are gone.
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