Adnan Januzaj has been the bright spark in a disappointing season so far for Manchester United
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What do the numbers tell us about Januzaj’s best position? And what does he have in common with red legend, Cristiano Ronaldo? @Sleepy_Nik explains more …
There have been few Manchester United players to emerge from the opening half of the season with their reputations enhanced, but one such player is the Belgian sensation, Adnan Januzaj. His form has been the one shining light in a dark and dour start to David Moyes’ United career; form that suggests that the hype around the teenager from all quarters is fully justified.
As Sir Alex Ferguson himself put it before retiring, “Adnan has a great future, he is a beautifully balanced player. He’s only 18 and has to grow into his frame but he has good balance, good acceleration and is a very good technical player.” Astute as ever, Ferguson highlighted the three key aspects to Januzaj’s game, attributes you could argue were exemplified at a similar age in Cristiano Ronaldo’s United career. But where is the youngster’s best position likely to be? And could we see a similar positional evolution to that of the Ballon d’Or 2013 winner?
Left side or right side?
A graceful player who can seemingly play anywhere across the final third, it is indeed Januzaj’s balance and acceleration (and strength of mind) that Ferguson mentions that has set him apart; being able to sprint well per se is much less beneficial to the sharp change of pace he demonstrates, allowing him to escape the clutches of the chasing defender, and offering him more time on the ball. Januzaj controls the ball well at pace, and this term he has successfully executed an average of 1.9 dribbles per game (to put that stat into context, Hazard averaged 1.8 last season, and Ronaldo averages 2.1), and his performances have yielded a higher match rating (7.45 as opposed to 6.95 overall) when played on the left side – particularly high up.
Januzaj links well with Patrice Evra (the pair exchanged 17 passes versus Southampton alone), often using the Frenchman’s overlapping runs as a decoy, allowing him to drift infield and create central openings. And although the youngster has only succeeded in 8 of his 50 attempted crosses in the league, the stat says a lot more about United’s lack of attacking dynamism and finesse than it does about his crossing ability. As we can see from his set piece delivery, Januzaj has the ability to cross accurately and with speed; versus West Ham and Swansea at home too he was unplayable at times, using his ability to jinx past his man on the outside and cross from the by-line.
So does this mean he is a shoe-in to follow in Ryan Giggs’ footsteps, plying his trade down the left wing? Well not exactly. Picking up on the third attribute Ferguson alluded to then, Januzaj is the very definition of a technical player who has the ability to choose the right pass under pressure. The youngster is equally adept on the right side of the pitch, and his Ozil-esque assist for Welbeck against Tottenham at Old Trafford last month is a testament to his approach there. Often this season he has indeed mirrored Mesut Ozil’s approach play from the right; being naturally inclined to come inside on his stronger left foot, he continually surveys the landscape ahead of him, trying to play the short pass into the forward’s feet before creating an angle for the return ball. In fact, it is no surprise to see the opposition target the player when he gets the ball given his fantastic vision; Januzaj is fouled a staggering 2.8 times per game (as a comparison Luis Suarez has been fouled 1.9 times per game).
The ‘inverted winger’ approach is nothing new, and Januzaj clearly prefers the left side at the present time (particularly too, as Valencia has rediscovered his verve), but there is surely mileage in offering him greater opportunities from the right, as it is here that the youngster could potentially cause most harm in future. In his 16 appearances so far for United in the league (with 6 coming from the bench), Januzaj has started just twice on the right side (averaging a 6.76 match rating) – but crucially, his starting position has been much deeper than it has been than when over on the left side (perhaps due to greater defensive duties required there).
He has, however, averaged over 2 shots (2.1) on goal per game (more than double that of say, Juan Mata’s count), shooting a remarkable 6 times versus Sunderland away in the league alone, and scoring 3 goals overall. Creating space to shoot from deep is a difficult task in an era of defensive caution (with many sides seeking to deploy two central players in front of the back four), and with a right starting berth, he is able to create these openings himself, coming inside on his left foot – allowing him further opportunities there would surely bolster this statistic (a goal-scoring midfielder is fast becoming a rare breed at Old Trafford). Shooting from range also exemplifies a quality that he has in abundance: confidence in his own ability – bringing us nicely back to the Ronaldo ‘comparison’.
Januzaj’s ability to run at the defender at pace, with a swift change in direction to allow the opening for a shot at goal, could certainly be an area of his game to explore in what would be a high right-sided attacking position – though he certainly has a long way to go to match Ronaldo’s startling 7.8 shots per game. Carlos Queiroz famously coached the ex-red’s dynamism in this respect (with Mourinho applying the finishing touches in a left-sided attacking role at Madrid), and of course Januzaj’s similar development would be a huge ask; but crucially, he has the years he has ahead of him. It would also be a big ask of Moyes’ tactical philosophy on the basis of what we have seen so far, and should such an advanced right position become his in future, United would need to develop a more cohesive 4-2-3-1 approach.
Januzaj as a number 10?
Given Januzaj’s ability to play both as a traditional winger, and a schemer coming in from the right, what are his chances of becoming a true number 10? So far he has only played there twice (for any considerable length of time), versus Swansea at home in the league, and for two thirds of the game against Chelsea at the Bridge. Against Swansea in particular, Januzaj seemed to thrive in the role, and claimed man of the match with a rating of 7.73; against Chelsea, his elegant movement was beyond his years, continually dragging the centre half out, before darting beyond Ivanovic at right back. But of course, to play here on a regular basis is a different proposition entirely, and though he clearly has the awareness and ability on the ball – using both feet with aplomb – again the current United system has hindered his long-term prospects here (as it has Shinji Kagawa).
He also has a certain Wayne Rooney to contend with, and the Englishman plays the ‘10’ role like no other in world football (Rooney averages 2.4 key passes per game, set against Adnan’s 1.1), his combative nature suiting the Moyes approach to 4-4-1-1, which is what makes him so vital. In terms of his passing game (so crucial to this role), Januzaj has assisted only 2 goals in the league (a reflection also of United’s overall form), but has been successful in his ability to pick the right opportunity for the through ball (something Kagawa has tried, but failed, to bring to the side on a consistent basis), completing 6 from 7 passes into the attacking player. Januzaj’s 79.9% pass completion success is not bad, and his ball retention would surely improve from the centre, as would the total amount of passes he plays (he currently averages only 24 per game from out wide). His long-range passing is an area for development but improving by the game, having completed only 14 from 25 attempted long balls so far this campaign.
In the number 10 role, Januzaj would undoubtedly have to improve his defensive acumen and pressing game, which has become key to the modern adaptation of the role. Think Iniesta for Barcelona (rather than ‘noughties Riquelme’), who, whilst not a typical advanced central playmaker, does hold creative responsibility – his pressing game is essential to the role and at 1.9 tackles per game, that is more than double that of Januzaj (0.9). Intercepting the ball high up the field is also important, and Januzaj completes only 0.7 interceptions per game, half that of Kagawa’s rate (1.4). Whilst only in his first season at the highest level, Januzaj is prone to losing the ball too easily, being dispossessed 2.4 times per game on average. The manager will also have the option of starting him further ahead, something between 9 and 10, or the ‘Messi approach’, allowing the starlet to drop deep to receive the ball before running directly at opponents.
So, there we have it. Despite Januzaj being so young and so raw, it is not an exaggeration to say that he has indeed the capacity to play anywhere in the attacking zone – and we are likely to see him deployed in a variety of positions in the coming years. As the boy himself says on the matter: “I like to play in midfield or as an inside winger but I can also play as a number 10 behind the striker or a number 8, or I can play on the wings as well. Last year, I played striker for the reserves, so I can help the team in each position.”
For now, Januzaj will likely continue to add panache to United’s attack from both sides of the field, strutting his stuff predominantly from the inside left position that he is making his own. But don’t be surprised to see his long-term future on the right, particularly if he can develop physically, honing his skills and attributes that have made him a creative threat in front of goal. Starting as a central playmaker (either in the Ozil mode, or something of a false 9) will always be an option for David Moyes, but given the system and the players around him, you feel this might come much later in the Belgian’s career.
Adnan Januzaj shares a birthday – and soon the number 7 shirt you’d imagine – with Cristiano Ronaldo, and similar playing characteristics to the player United signed from Sporting Lisbon over ten years ago. How United fans would love the youngster to follow in the Portuguese’s footsteps in terms of impact, and should he provide even half the memories for the Old Trafford faithful, it would be an absolute delight.
Statistics courtesy of the excellent WhoScored.com