Adnan Januzaj: The rise, fall and revival of Man Utd's forgotten wonderkid

Adnan Januzaj GFX
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The winger will face off against the Red Devils for Real Sociedad this week after a career at Old Trafford that promised plenty but delivered little

October 5, 2013. Stadium of Light, Sunderland. A Manchester United star is born.

Or so everybody thought.

Having been handed his full Premier League debut by David Moyes, then-18-year-old Adnan Januzaj scored twice for the Red Devils as they came from behind to secure a much-needed victory for their new, but already beleaguered, manager.

“As far as debuts go, I would be surprised if even the great players in United's past have shown such promise on day one,” Moyes effused in his post-match press conference. “It wasn't just the two goals, his whole game was outstanding.

"We know we've got a really special talent, but we'll keep his feet on the ground. He's going to be a top, top player.”

It was not just Moyes who had high expectations for the winger. Januzaj joined United from Anderlecht in 2011 at the age of 16, and everyone at the club’s Carrington training base believed he had the talent to go all the way.

He had a good relationship with youth coaches Paul McGuinness and Warren Joyce while he trained with the first-team squad under Sir Alex Ferguson before making the bench in the legendary Scot's final game in charge against West Brom in May 2013.  

Many at the club were placing him in the same bracket as Ryan Giggs, Wayne Rooney and Cristiano Ronaldo in terms of having a rare level of talent that would cement his position at the top of the game for a very long time.

Moyes Januzaj quote GFX

It was that natural ability, first touch, powerful shot and skill which made him stand out, and after a successful pre-season under Moyes he was earning comparisons to the game’s elite.

“Januzaj is outstanding and I think he is similar to Cristiano Ronaldo,” former United youth coach Eric Harrison said in 2013. “He can beat people and with [new signing] Wilfried Zaha, I think there is some outstanding quality there.”

Off the back of that pre-season, Januzaj’s stock could not have been much higher, and Moyes insisted the teenager stay at the club rather than spend the campaign out on loan.

"Along with Wayne Rooney, Adnan is the best young talent I've worked with as a manager,” Moyes admitted in the years that followed his sacking at Old Trafford. "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."

Though Januzaj made 35 appearances during that impressive first season at the highest level, a lucrative five-year contract that he signed during the course of the campaign was cited as being a factor in him beginning to take his eye off the ball, believing he had already proven himself to be a mainstay at Old Trafford.

"I hope he’s the kind of player who knows he will have to develop and move on and on and on, and not think that just because you’ve played 10 games in the Premier League then you’re already there at the top," warned Michael Laudrup after Januzaj put in another eye-catching display against his Swansea City side during the course of the 2013-14 campaign.

"At 18, 19, 20 years old you’re still a boy. It’s important to keep your feet on the ground, but it depends on the people you have around you. It’s very important you’re at the right club with the right people - family and friends - to advise you."

If Januzaj heard Laudrup's words, he did not heed the advice, and following the arrival of Louis van Gaal to replace Moyes he suffered a rude awakening.

Moyes Januzaj quote GFX

Despite having been handed the No.11 shirt following Giggs' retirement, over the course of the 2014-15 season he started more games for United's Under-23s side in Premier League 2 than he did for the first team, and he struggled to deal with the criticism that began to be aimed in his direction.

Having held a good relationship with Ferguson - who he remains in contact with - as well as with Moyes, the same was not forthcoming from Van Gaal, who clearly preferred to have experienced heads in his line-up.

Believing he had no chance of breaking into the former Barcelona coach's team, Januzaj made it clear he wanted to leave the club on a permanent basis, despite knowing the contract he signed just 18 months earlier could stand in his way.

Though he did not get his wish, he was able to at least make a temporary departure as he joined Borussia Dortmund on a season-long loan in the summer of 2015.

Holding a reputation as one of Europe's finest finishing schools for young talent, Januzaj looked to have found the perfect landing spot. However, after making just 12 appearances in the first half of the season, he saw his loan cut short by United as he left the Bundesliga having made little to no impact.

"It is a pity he did not show the desire and attitude you need to progress at his age," then-Dortmund boss Thomas Tuchel told Sport Bild following the culmination of Januzaj's loan.

"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."

Tuchel Januzaj quote GFX

Those questions over his attitude would resurface the following year as he reunited with Moyes for a season on loan at Sunderland.

Januzaj had hoped that new United manager Jose Mourinho would help revitalise his career, but the Belgium international felt he was never given a fair chance by the Portuguese coach, and instead headed to the north east in a bid to revive his Premier League career.

Yet again, though, things did not go plan, with home supporters at times booing him off the pitch during a stint that saw him register just two goals and three assists in 29 appearances.

“I’ve said to Adnan, you need to stop blaming everyone else for what’s gone wrong,” said Moyes. “I’ve told Adnan to look at himself and realise that it’s down to him to change it. It can’t always be the manager’s fault or the coach’s fault that he hasn’t progressed.

“Adnan’s got to ask has he prepared right, has he got himself in the best condition, has he trained well enough? And, when he’s got his opportunity, has he played well enough? In a lot of cases the answer has to be no."

Moyes Januzaj quote GFX

Though Januzaj strongly denies the allegations regarding his attitude, there is no doubt that many at United feel it is what held him back before his eventual permanent departure to Real Sociedad in the summer of 2017.

“The frustrating thing is seeing ones like Januzaj, (James) Wilson or Federico Macheda get up to that level and stop doing the work they did to get them to that level,” Januzaj's former coach Joyce said.

“Not play the games, not train as hard, sit in jacuzzis and not do the same weights and sessions they did to get there. Those are the frustrating ones for me, because that could be avoided.

“You’re in football for sport, to be competitive and try to do your best and challenge yourself, so those things are on the periphery. You either want to be in a boyband in a pop star environment, or a footballer.”

While Januzaj is in agreement that his time at United was certainly a disappointment, he is not about to dwell on it as he prepares to face his former club for the first time when Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's side take on Sociedad in the last 32 of the Europa League.

Now 26, Januzaj has become a key figure at La Real during his three-and-a-half seasons in Spain, recording 16 goals and 16 assists in 109 appearances for the club as Imanol Alguacil's side continue to push for success domestically and on the continent.

That form has also earned him a recall to the Belgium squad, but his upcoming reunion with United is not about revenge for the winger.

"I don't have to prove to anyone how good I am, I just have to believe in myself, get my games and be happy," he told ESPN ahead of Thursday's first leg, which will now be played in Turin due to Covid-19 restrictions.

"I'm really happy to go back there, the club I love. Once I'm on the pitch, there's going to be no friends because obviously I'm playing for another club now and also I want to win the game."

Adnan Januzaj quote GFX

United fans will be hopeful that Januzaj does not come back to haunt them, with many likely having not thought about their former child prodigy for a number of years.

There remains regret inside the club, however, that things did not turn out the way both parties would have wanted.

"For me, the biggest disappointment at this club was Adnan Januzaj," former United midfielder and current head of the club's academy, Nicky Butt, said in 2019. "I don't think I've seen a player, probably since Ryan [Giggs], who was as good as that.

"He was unbelievable. In my eyes he should have gone on to be a world superstar.

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"He's still playing professional football and he will have a good career. I'm sure he's a millionaire and he won't be going to bed worrying about what bills he's got to pay, but he should have been a superstar.”

For whatever reason, Januzaj is not a superstar. But that does not mean the final chapter of his Manchester United story has already been written.

Over the next 10 days, though, it could be.

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