As the pressure cranks up on Manchester United boss David Moyes following a mid-season blip, the champions are looking more than ever to 18-year-old Adnan Januzaj. Michael Cox assesses the youngster's continuing rise...
For a player who hadn’t played a minute for Manchester United before this season, and wasn’t mentioned in any pre-season previews, Adnan Januzaj has become a key part of David Moyes’ side remarkably quickly.
Two goals on his full debut helped, of course – Januzaj had made just two substitute Premier League appearances before his memorable first start at Sunderland, where his two goals helped Manchester United turn around a 1-0 half-time deficit. That brought instant acclaim from United fans, and speculation linking him with the national side of around half a dozen separate countries.
While Januzaj has continued to impress, that Sunderland performance wasn’t the most appropriate introduction to the youngster’s talents. In that game, Januzaj continually dribbled past opponents and his goalscoring ability was clear...
But his overall style has actually been very different. He’s only scored once in the 18 appearances since the Sunderland game, and his dribbling has been much more inconsistent.
Take last weekend’s game against Swansea, for example. Januzaj’s performance was extremely impressive – when moved to the left flank, he helped create the opener for Antonio Valencia. Yet his statistics generally associated with wing play aren’t actually that impressive: he failed with most of his dribbles, and while three of his 10 crosses were successful, two of these were from set-pieces.
Going back to Januzaj’s performance on New Year’s Day, in the defeat to Tottenham Hotspur, there’s an interesting pattern. The youngster played on both sides – starting on the left but being moved to the right, from where he was much more effective. Not only are his dribbles more dangerous, he also created three chances in open play from that flank, including an assist for Danny Welbeck’s fine finish.
It’s difficult for Moyes to use him on that side, however – that’s where Antonio Valencia plays, and it seems Moyes usually wants to play with a natural winger on one flank, and a ‘drifter’ on the other. If Januzaj drifts inside from the right, there’s no-one to keep the width on the left, and using Ashley Young or Shinji Kagawa on that side would risk the centre of the pitch becoming congested.
But Januzaj is certainly a clever drifter, and more noticeable than his dribbling or shooting has been his intelligent positioning. He’s always glancing behind him, always looking for a yard of space, and the way he receives possession in variety of zones means the opposition are never sure of his positioning – he can pick up possession near the touchline, then drift inside to pockets of space between the lines.
Similarly, his runs are excellent. He always understands what the man in possession is attempting to do, and either comes short or spins in behind at the correct moments. And while his goalscoring record isn’t particularly impressive since his debut, he’s making the right runs in this respect, too.
Away at Aston Villa, for example, Manchester United created ten chances, all down the right flank, and whenever Valencia attempted to cross the ball, Januzaj charged inside from the opposite flank into a goalscoring position, despite the majority of his passes taking place very wide on the left.
That’s the type of thing many youngsters take a couple of years to get right, and Januzaj’s presence in the box played a part in both Welbeck’s two goals.
At Stamford Bridge this weekend, Januzaj seems likely to start on the left, drifting inside into pockets of space between the lines to help Kagawa create chances. He should also be a goal threat, too, in the same manner he was at Villa Park – United have often worked the Rafael-Valencia combination nicely against Ashley Cole, and might focus their passing down that flank, leaving Januzaj to get into the box.
At the start of the season, few would have expected Januzaj to be starting many matches, let alone away at title contenders. Already, however, the youngster has become one of Manchester United’s key players – and this weekend, he has a chance to make a decisive contribution in a genuinely big match.