Wednesday 13 December 2017

Adnan Januzaj flair invokes the spirit of George Best

Crystal Palace's Adrian Mariappa (L) challenges Manchester United's Adnan Januzaj on Saturday
Crystal Palace's Adrian Mariappa (L) challenges Manchester United's Adnan Januzaj on Saturday

Ian Herbert

When Manchester United’s transfer window had ended so ignominiously two weeks ago, a message coming down from the highest level of the club was that Adnan Januzaj’s promotion to the first-team squad by David Moyes showed that it was growing in unappreciated ways.

What seemed like a piece of self-justification at the time assumed significance during the 18-year-old’s first Premier League appearance in the 2-0 victory over Crystal Palace on Saturday – a day for remembering new beginnings, 50 years on exactly from when George Best first pulled on the No 7 jersey. All things in perspective, but Januzaj displayed some of the sang froid that Best displayed all those years ago, and demonstrated, just like him, that the slender frame which everyone at Carrington agrees needs filling out should not be an  impediment to progress.

The Belgian-Albanian’s innocence was refreshing when he replaced Ashley Young – who you hope will begin to realise that his theatrics are contributing to his struggle to be loved by United’s faithful.

“Gonna be like Tiger Woods,” Januzaj recently said on Facebook, so delighted was he to receive some new kit from a sponsor. He’s the only United first-team player with as few as 662 followers on Twitter. But the boy can play. “Everyone knows he’s a player with enormous qualities. Technically he’s amazing,” his compatriot and new team-mate Marouane Fellaini observed after his own notable arrival from the bench. “Now it’s up to him to prove himself.”

The coaches talk about the importance of the “half turn” position when a player receives a ball with one shoulder facing his own goal and the other the opposition’s. It should never be back to goal. Januzaj remembered the coaching. He was a foil to the gamesmanship of Young, whose habit of manufacturing penalties by leaning into players is deeply unedifying.

There are never guarantees that technical qualities as fine as his will be carried into the Premier League. But Januzaj was on the field little more than a minute before skipping beyond Adrian Mariappa, and levering a dangerous cross which was scrambled away. There was a beautiful reverse pass inside Danny Gabbidon for Wayne Rooney to experiment with a Hollywood chip when something more Croxteth was needed. Then his mazy running won the free-kick from which Rooney scored. Moyes has always loved wide men, stretching the full-backs and creating corridors inside them to exploit. Another reason why the United manager talks about Januzaj so often.

He is a young man with his own mind, though, who has not played for Belgium at any youth level because of thoughts of Albania – despite a career formed at Anderlecht, who were paid €600,000 (£500,000) by United for him two years ago.

The teenager’s parents are Kosovar-Albanians, with his father a key influence. United are seeking to tie him down, too, as his current contract has a year to run and Juventus and Barcelona are circling. The club could provide no progress update on that front yesterday. Expect United’s  attempts to keep him to become a significant story in the weeks ahead.

The 18-year-old’s strength and fitness are what reserve-team coach, Warren Joyce, considers the biggest grounds for development for last season’s United reserve team player of the year. Talk of Januzaj heading out on loan – Blackburn Rovers have denied they may be recipients – is a receding prospect.

“I used to like the ball and go to the ball and now I have to do another job – defending,” Januzaj told the club’s media this summer. “But for United, there is a growing urgency to ensure he will simply be expressing himself – in their own colours.

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