Adnan Januzaj is another former Manchester United player whom fans have mixed feelings about after watching him score the winner for Belgium against England at the World Cup.
Fans had high hopes for Januzaj, especially when he scored two goals in his league debut at Sunderland in October 2013, yet he was another player allowed to leave during a purge of talente under Louis van Gaal.
Many departures suffered after Sir Alex Ferguson left in 2013 — Nani, Jonny Evans, Darren Fletcher and Rafael among them. They would have likely stayed at Old Trafford under the man who brought them there, but were allowed to leave by the Dutchman with a very clear philosophy. You can argue for and against case for all the departures, but Januzaj’s circumstances were slightly different.
Ferguson knew the Belgian was the best talent in the youth system, but it was David Moyes who brought him through, gave him his debut and saw the decision quickly vindicated in 2013.
But Januzaj’s rise caused problems among the other players. They were already reeling under Moyes’ tenure and the drop in form. Players didn’t like it when a cocksure, cap-wearing kid broke into the first team and started being serenaded in a glorious song by fans desperate to salvage something positive from the car crash of United’s 2013-14 season.
“I wanna tell you,” sang Reds to the tune of the advert for the National Lottery, “I might as well do, About a boy who can do anything. His name is Adnan, He comes from Belgium: Januzaj, Januzaj, Januzaj!”
Januzaj behaved like he had won the jackpot, full of himself as you probably need to be break into United’s first team as a teenager. He was also seen as Moyes’ man and given the manager’s struggles with his players as the team fell apart, that wasn’t a positive. Players — several of them who should have taken more responsibility as United spun from champions to seventh — went from winners to losers, and having a player take their spot didn’t improve their mood.
Januzaj became defensive — if not on the pitch — and he thought that players were jealous because fans were singing his name and not theirs. It was a rough transition from a reserve player to a first teamer.
“It’s a hard school at Manchester United, established players test youngsters by kicking them to try and find them out,” Moyes told me.
“They want to know if they’ve got the mental strength to play for United. They kept kicking Adnan, but he kept bouncing back up and accepting that it was part of his education. He’d been primed for that as he came through the ranks and reserve coach Warren Joyce was good with him.
“He possesses a level of self-assured arrogance which is a positive, as he’s not too arrogant. On the contrary, he’s a bright lad who is mature for his age. His dad has really looked after him by keeping him grounded and making sure that he lived a near perfect life in terms of his development. His dad has only wanted the best for him.”
Moyes’ coaches played a pivotal part in his promotion.
“We brought Adnan up to train with us on the third day of preseason,” Phil Neville told me. “We could see merit in him having a bit of experience with the first team after he’d done so well last season. Within five minutes of doing a little seven vs. three possession, you could see the vision of him playing for Man United’s first team.
“At the end of the session, all of the coaches got together. We were unanimous in our thoughts on what he’d done. He played like a Man United player. He’d wanted the ball, he was brave, he went into a tackle and smashed someone. You might say, ‘Why does that matter?’ Some kids are in awe when they are promoted to the first team, they pussyfoot about.
“Adnan looked like a Man United player. He was like: ‘Come on, I want more of this. I should have been in here yesterday, not today.’ Straightaway, the manager came up to me and said: ‘He will be a Man United first team player.’
“He gave him that chance, he’d looked after him, he’d signed a new contract. A lot of that was down to Moyes. He didn’t talk about potential; he trusted the potential enough to play it. He felt that the boy was going to be some player.”
Moyes remains a huge admirer of Januzaj.
“Along with Wayne Rooney, Adnan is the best young talent I’ve worked with as a manager,” said Moyes. “He’s a wonderful player gifted with great balance and the ability to go past people with ease. When I see his poise on the ball he has characteristics of Johan Cruyff.”
But Januzaj’s career didn’t go to plan. He tried. He took time out to go to Dubai with a personal trainer and Luke Shaw before the start of the 2015-16 season and started two of the three opening games, scoring a winner at Villa. Then he went on loan to Dortmund, which didn’t work out. When he came back, Van Gaal used him for only 17 minutes of Premier League games in the second half of the 2015-16 season. Januzaj spent 2017-18 in a woeful Sunderland side before his €10 million move to Spain with Real Sociedad. He tends to go where Moyes manages or has managed, so a move to West Ham wouldn’t be surprising.
But Januzaj is still only 23. Off the back of his good form with Real Sociedad — he stood out for La Real at Barcelona on the last day of the season alongside Alvaro Odriozola, a 22-year old full-back called up for Spain’s World Cup squad — he made the Belgium squad which is full of world-class players. His return to playing in a Belgium shirt comes four years after featuring at the 2014 World Cup. He’s not Belgium’s standout player, but he’s at the World Cup on merit and he’s also been starting every week for a mid-table La Liga team with higher hopes for next season.
He’s not yet become the star Moyes expected, but he’s got time and he still shows some of that early promise. Antoine Griezmann found his feet at Real Sociedad before moving to Atletico Madrid at 24. Januzaj’s trajectory has been very different, but he’s not in a bad place to be judged.