By the time Russia came around, Adnan Januzaj was supposed to be at the forefront of the world game, the face of a resurgent Manchester United, and one of Belgium’s leading men in his second World Cup finals. The first expectation may be a long discarded dream but the second is now a revived possibility. Still just 23, he has a chance to assert a talent that has only revealed itself on fleeting occasion.
As official confirmation of the 32 23-man World Cup squads trickled out on June 5, and players like France’s Adrien Rabiot and Germany’s Leroy Sane were lamented, Januzaj’s name received a flicker of recognition, particularly when Radja Nainggolan had not been selected by Roberto Martinez.
Could this be the same player fans of Sunderland will recall as one of the biggest busts amid the wreckage of their 2016-17 relegation season, someone even David Moyes lost faith in? “I can think of two or three games,” Moyes said, asked about a player who had been targeted by angry Mackem fans. “But it is not enough.”
During their brief time together at United, Moyes had once made an unfortunate, impossible comparison to Johan Cruyff, yet Januzaj eventually departed in almost almost as much obscurity as when arriving as a 16-year-old from Anderlecht.
As United cashed in Januzaj to Real Sociedad last summer for a reported fee of £9.8m, it appeared a smart piece of business for someone whose cachet had dropped through the floor.
He had been marked for possible greatness. Januzaj sat on the bench in Sir Alex Ferguson’s final match, that fantastical 5-5 draw with West Brom in May 2013. As he left Manchester, it was to help clear the decks for Belgium team-mate Romelu Lukaku who had scored three goals as a substitute that day, and was now costing United around £75m.
Januzaj may be a victim of the club’s flux since Ferguson, someone chewed up and spat out by an institution throwing resources at trying to revive itself, but he also bears responsibility for blowing his chance. In eight months in charge, Januzaj was the only youngster given a proper spin by Moyes, under serious pressure from the get-go and unable to otherwise trust youth.
Louis van Gaal gave 14 first-team debuts to youngsters during two years at United, but got little from Januzaj, not even a single goal in 22 appearances in the 2014-15 season. Even the winner in United’s second match of the following campaign at Aston Villa was not enough and a dissatisfied player demanded a loan move.
Borussia Dortmund has a reputation as a crucible of young talent, but coach Thomas Tuchel spelled out what would become a frequent query about “the motivation and attitude you need to further yourself at this age”.
Similar questions were asked after Januzaj’s January 2016 return to Manchester, and also during that disastrous season at Sunderland. At United, he could only watch as Marcus Rashford became the club’s new teenage sensation and Jesse Lingard, two years older but a late developer, smashed the winner in the 2016 FA Cup final.
A young player only gets a brief chance to be the one most likely to, especially at a club like Manchester United. Salvation, though, may just have been found in the Basque Country, where La Real, its crowd no less passionate than those on Wearside, is a club where talent can rediscover itself.
He may not quite resemble the Januzaj over whom there was a huge media scramble when it was sensationally suggested the English Football Association might be trying to naturalise the Kosovar born in Brussels, but within a club not without its troubles last season, with coach Eusebio sacked in March, something of the bravery of his teenage breakthrough has been rediscovered. He once again takes on opponents, trusting himself in one-on-one situations and though goals continue to be in shortfall, with him developing an unfortunate knack of grazing the post, he is popular in San Sebastian, where a newfound willingness to help out defensively wins him kudos with fans.
Martinez’s keen eye on La Liga doubtlessly helped Januzaj’s cause, and the former Everton manager has always liked players with his attributes and been able to accept the inconsistencies of a wing player, with Evertonians Kevin Mirallas and Gerard Deulofeu ringing out as prime examples.
Januzaj’s role in Russia is likely to be that of an impact sub, judging by Martinez’s comments during Belglum’s pre-tournament news conferences. “When players have accumulated minutes, he can bring freshness, especially in situations of one against one,” he said. “I have seen an evolution in recent months, he has grown in maturity. I expect a lot from him.”
Back in 2014, when coming on as a sub against South Korea in Sao Paulo, Januzaj became United’s second youngest ever World Cup player after Norman Whiteside, only for his freshness and attitude to appear to have died on the vine. Back from the fringes, he has another chance.