In February 2014 the wrath of a thousand Manchester United fans was unleashed upon me for giving Raheem Sterling top billing on a Top Ten Teenagers list. Adnan Januzaj was second and I was a fool, ignoramus and, most damningly, a woman. Even describing the Belgian as ‘potentially one of the outstanding players of his generation’ did not dilute the furious feedback. When it comes to top ten lists, only the order matters. And I was obviously saying Liverpool p**s all over Manchester United.
Tellingly, I also wrote that Januzaj ‘certainly looks good when compared with the limitations of Ashley Young and Antonio Valencia’, two players who have revived their Manchester United careers simply by doing exactly what Louis van Gaal asks. The pair had and still have limitations but have thrived and survived respectively, seeing off the more maverick talents of Nani and Angel Di Maria.
“It is difficult to adapt to Van Gaal because he points to his philosophy. Everyone takes what he wants and does,” said Di Maria this week, revealing what we all already suspected: There is no room for inconsistency from anybody but Van Gaal himself, who can vary your position on a weekly basis but still expect you to deliver an 8/10 performance. Knowing your job is not enough; you must also know everybody else’s job just in case that becomes your job. Sound unfair? Frankly, he doesn’t give a damn.
Januzaj is the latest player to fall fatally short of Van Gaal’s high expectations. Having played on the flank, as a No. 10 and as a frontline striker in pre-season, he scored the only goal in United’s second game of the season against Aston Villa while playing behind Wayne Rooney. Job done? Not exactly.
“There is more than scoring a goal,” said Van Gaal. “There were a lot of unnecessary ball losses [from Januzaj]. Also from Memphis (Depay), a lot of ball losses and that’s why there were not a lot of chances.”
If we were Memphis Depay, we would be worried. If we were Anthony Martial and had a pass completion rate of less than 70%, we would be incredibly worried.
Those talented wasters will have a season to take an emery board to their rough edges but Januzaj (at 20) has probably been given – and wasted – his last chance. Perhaps admitting that his “fitness is not so good” after that Villa game was an error. Like Nani, Wilfried Zaha, Javier Hernandez and Tom Cleverley before him, there is unlikely to be a permanent return route to Old Trafford from a loan spell. When one man’s word is gospel, why would his disciples be allowed to listen to another man’s voice? A season of Thomas Tuchel will take Januzaj even further away from Van Gaal and that simply won’t do.
It’s difficult to argue with United loaning out Januzaj or selling Hernandez, whose limited game was never going to make him a Van Gaal favourite. Talk of ‘transfer mayhem’ and a ‘bonkers Bank Holiday’ (as seen in Tuesday’s Sun) should be limited to the club’s failure to sufficiently add to a rapidly shrinking squad; they now have barely enough senior players for a bench.
Nineteen months on from that original, controversial list, Sterling is a £44m Manchester City player and Januzaj is on loan at Borussia Dortmund. It would be easy to close the door on that particular battle and declare Sterling the winner. But like Kevin de Bruyne – who fell short of Jose Mourinho’s particular standards – Januzaj can only be truly judged when he escapes the man who could never forgive his ‘unnecessary ball losses’.