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August 20, 2018

Remember Adnan Januzaj? He's Good Now

By Mohamed Mohamed

There were very few positives to come from Manchester United’s 2013–14 season. David Moyes inherited an old squad that was pushed to their limits the previous season as they won the Premier League to give Sir Alex Ferguson a fitting send off. The calamity that ensued took years to undo. One of the few glimmers of hope during such a dour season was that as a teenager, Adnan Januzaj was a positive contributor and showed promise, performing like a live wire act at his best. You weren’t quite sure just how good of a prospect Januzaj was, but the fact that he held his own against grown men in a top league was encouraging, similar to what happened with Marcus Rashford a few seasons later.

The next three years eliminated all of the goodwill built up from that debut season. Januzaj couldn’t reclaim his starting spot at United after the managerial switch to Louis Van Gaal, his loan stint at Dortmund went horribly, and he wasted away at Sunderland during their relegation season. No longer was he viewed as a bright young talent that United could bank on playing 2000+ minutes per season, but rather a player in his early 20’s who was trying to reclaim his former glory. And that’s why last season at Real Sociedad was such a breath of fresh air for Januzaj’s career. On the surface, producing a non penalty goals + assists per 90 rate of 0.44 was decent, but peek behind the curtains and his overall statistical resume showed that he performed like one of the best attackers in La Liga.

Januzaj found a home in Spain, especially playing at a club like Real Sociedad that prioritized projecting a sense of calmness during possession regardless of the pressure by the opponent. This started all the way at the back where Real Sociedad loved to play from the goalkeeper. Either Gerónimo Rulli or Miguel Ángel Moyá, whenever they were given the chance to do so, played the ball short. If the opposition brought men forward so it wasn’t a viable option to play a short pass to one of the wide CBs or the players coming infield to support the keeper in possession, then, and only then, would they go long to bypass the first line of defense and find openings higher up the pitch.

Real Sociedad used their ability to keep calm position to create combination plays, keeping a compact shape which would help in creating passing outlets near the ball carrier and create openings for players to receive the ball and create forward momentum. In Willian Jose, Real Sociedad had a striker who could act as a focal point whenever they wanted to move the ball further forward quickly. Their fullbacks, particularly with Álvaro Odriozola on the right side, were important and turned Real Sociedad’s wing play and spells of possession into dangerous crosses into the box. They were above league average in regards to penalty box entries that came from crosses. All of this, along with midfield players like Asier Illarramendi and David Zurutuza, helped the team function as a possession based side without it turning towards sterile. At their best, they played attacking football that could tear opponents to shreds.

The value that Januzaj brought wasn’t necessarily as a wide player who could advance the ball by himself from deeper areas. He wasn’t Malcom or Hazard, though he could fill that role in a pinch. Instead, he played as a spark plug, a player that could amplify the structure behind him and create chances for himself or others during spells in possession. He was the type of player who you could give the ball in an isolated duel on the wing and feel good about him doing something positive. If there was an opening when on the right wing, he could get back infield onto his left foot and shoot. Otherwise, he was able to create just enough separation off the dribble that he can go to near the touchline and deliver a cutback to an open teammate in the box. He was that dash of spontaneity to amplify the disciplined possession behind him.

Januzaj was also able to operate off-ball to get on the end of passes and turn them into dangerous shooting opportunities, which was why his xG/shot of 0.10 was solid for a wide player. Between Sergio Canales, Xabi Prieto and others on the squad, Real Sociedad had a number of capable playmakers which meant that Januzaj could lurk into the center and take advantage. Whether it was finding gaps between the defensive line or just arriving at the penalty box at the right time, Januzaj was given the freedom to operate off-ball and not just have to settle for low efficiency shots after cutting inside off the dribble.

It wasn’t totally seamless for Januzaj, as he turned the ball over quite a bit and his heavy shot usage meant he was prone to taking some questionable shots, but the good definitely outweighed the bad. Januzaj was a high impact player in the minutes he played, even though his minutes weren’t sky high because of a string of niggling injuries. If his goal scoring contribution matched up with his expected output, his season would’ve been held in a better light than it perhaps was. What’s interesting is trying to figure just how much stock we can put into his 2017–18 performance moving forward. On the surface an attacking player, especially a wide player like Januzaj, making a leap in his early 20’s is totally reasonable because that’s usually when those type of players move into the next stage of their career. His numbers were legit so there’s nothing necessarily to worry about from that department, and yet it’s hard to ignore that there were basically three dead seasons between his promising debut season in 2013-14 and what he produced last season 2017-18 campaign.

But it wouldn’t be impossible to explain a lot of what happened in those three years. The Louis Van Gaal era at Manchester United was so weird and chaotic from a roster standpoint that Januzaj didn’t have much room for error as a teenager to maintain a consistent spot. His short loan spell at Dortmund was bad with maturity issues being a sticking point at the time, and perhaps two years of added experience means a greater sense of maturity compared to what was shown in Germany. As for his Sunderland tenure in 2016–17, it would be harsh to use that as a relevant data point against him considering Sunderland been relegated in back to back seasons and now reside in League One. It could very well be that Januzaj getting minutes in a decent but not necessarily great team like Real Sociedad was just what the doctor ordered for a career reboot.

To some extent, Januzaj’s career resembles what’s gone on with Florian Thauvin. Thauvin was a hot prospect in France a few years ago during his days at Bastia, but his career stalled out during his first stint at Marseille and those disastrous few months at Newcastle. It’s been the last two seasons back in France where Thauvin has become the caliber of player that many saw in him. Januzaj is following a similar trajectory and it shows the volatility that can come with prospect development. While more young talents than not follow a more traditional pattern, some take a different path to their final destination for a bevy of reasons.

There are numerous stories within La Liga that should make the 2018–19 season an exciting one. Real Madrid and Barcelona will continue to operate in their own space, with the former trying to navigate their squad without having Cristiano Ronaldo to suck up a lot of shots, and the latter trying to cobble together one last great side during Lionel Messi’s latter years. Perhaps Atletico Madrid have enough fire power to put a scare into the two La liga giants, with the acquisition of Thomas Lemar and Gelson Martins injecting some new talent into the squad. Go further down the table and you’ll find clubs like Real Betis trying to replicate the high octane football they displayed last season and Valencia building on a successful 4th place finish under manager Marcelino.

Somewhere in the list of La Liga story lines is Adnan Januzaj, and his encore to what was a vibrant first season in Spain. No one really knows just how good Januzaj’s second season at Real Sociedad will be, and whether what we saw in year one wasn’t necessarily an accurate representation of his true talent level or the beginnings of a new stage in his career as a top player. The 2018-19 season will help in figuring out whether it’s the former or the latter.

Article by Mohamed Mohamed