The older I get and the more football seasons that come and go, the shorter each passing one seems. We’re nearly half way through the season and, in many ways, it seems like it only kicked off yesterday.
However, in some respects the start of this season seems like a long time ago. In particular, it seems like an age since a beaming Adnan Januzaj was shown video footage of Sunderland fans - so keen to take him to their hearts - singing a rendition of the Stone Roses ‘Made of Stone’, with new lyrics that made clear the high hopes the fans had for Januzaj.
Sunderland related social media was dominated by the chant for days on end, with fans unable to get the chant out of their head. In the first game of the season - despite only signing the day before and barely playing the previous season - Januzaj was to look reasonably fresh and eager, beating a few defenders and starting the move that saw Jermain Defoe draw us level against Manchester City. Not a bad start, all things considered.
How things change. Now we find ourselves observing what looks to be the latest example of an exciting young talent wasting their ability. Furthermore, we seem increasingly willing to entertain the notion of sending Januzaj packing from his season long loan early, should such a move help us add a more productive player to the squad. Given what we have seen so far, this is not only a legitimate question, it is almost a settled argument.
Let’s get the empty concession out of the way that always precedes a Januzaj discussion - Adnan Januzaj is a very talented footballer. However, even significant talent is only a part of what makes a player reliable, or even useful, to a team in a competitive league. As Louis Van Gaal once said in reference to Januzaj, "Talent is important, but so is the character to develop your talent".
Amongst the players who possess world class ability, it is the consistency to make the difference week in week out that separates them from players of equal or superior ability, but who are content to live off brief demonstrations of their talent. It is not ability that separates the likes of Neymar, Andrea Pirlo or Gareth Bale from Hatem Ben Arfa, Adel Taraabt or Ravel Morrison. It is application, attitude and the desire to reach new levels of performance, all the while preserving an insatiable appetite for improvement.
It is in this respect that Januzaj fails, and he does so spectacularly. There is no getting away from the fact that Januzaj is one of the least competitive players I’ve ever seen. There’s not a combative bone in his body, while he is clearly unwilling to put himself at risk for the good of the team. He is almost the complete antithesis of the fans ideal Sunderland player, bottling 50/50 challenges that pose him minimal levels of risk.
He has no appetite for the game and seems unwilling to work hard for his own good, so the idea that he would do so selflessly for Sunderland is one that would be funny, if it didn’t leave me seething with unbridled frustration and anger.
The fact of the matter is, Januzaj’s few positive performances and brief spell of form several years ago have been overshadowed by questions over his attitude and multiple examples of limited -even non-existent - dedication to his development.
Borussia Dortmund, a club heralded for its ability to nurture raw potential into consistent world class footballers, cancelled Januzaj’s loan half way through the season in 2015/16. Dortmund head coach Thomas Tuchel said:
It is a pity he did not show the desire and attitude you need to progress at his age. My feeling was that he never was completely with us, that a part of him always stayed in Manchester and he compared everything here with United. We were not able to help him to shake that off.
Even upon joining Sunderland, David Moyes remarked:
I’ve said to Adnan, you need to stop blaming everyone else for what’s gone wrong. This loan’s a little bit of a risk. I’ve told Adnan to look at himself - it can’t always be the manager’s fault that he hasn’t progressed.
Adnan’s got to ask has he prepared right - has he trained well enough? And, when he’s got his opportunity, has he played well enough? In a lot of cases the answer has to be ‘no’.
Though Moyes has faith in Januzaj’s ability, he clearly has not been sufficiently impressed with his application in training to start him in games.
His absence from the starting line up speaks volumes, especially considering Januzaj did not start against a desperately poor and vulnerable Swansea side, even when Gooch and Watmore are injured long term and Khazri is out of favour. It does not take a genius to see where Januzaj’s brief career has gone wrong and his recent problems at Manchester United and Dortmund are all too familiar to Sunderland fans this season.
Perhaps Januzaj was and still is too young. Some players mature later than others and at only twenty one years old, he certainly has time to turn things around and address the issues with his attitude and approach. But his past works against him, as clubs far more accustomed to coaxing talent and consistency from young players than Sunderland, have decided he was not worth the effort. Considering the short time frame we have and the pressing nature of our predicament, if his departure frees up funds for another target, it would be worth pursuing.
After all, unless Januzaj changes his attitude and delivers more consistently, he will have to make do with only twenty or thirty thousand pounds a week. A paltry amount, unless of course he moves to one of the burgeoning, lucrative and uncompetitive leagues, who hand average players eye watering contracts in an effort to increase the leagues quality from poor to mediocre.
The frustrating thing is, even if his attitude problems are never resolved and his full potential is unfulfilled, Januzaj’s talent will still earn him an obscene wage until his playing days are over. Yes, in this golden age of football, even self-entitled, lazy footballers can earn their fortune. Perhaps that is why we see so many talented footballers who are ultimately indifferent as to whether they reach their full potential or not. After all, if the money comes anyway, what’s the point?
For Januzaj, the early days of optimistic Stone Roses chants look like an increasingly distant memory. But maybe we can find some new lyrics that are more in keeping with his spell on Wearside, which could be entering it’s final weeks after all:
Say bye bye
He plays for Man United
No surprise he’s self entitled
He’s got skills he doesn’t show
So now it’s time to go…
Yep, that’ll do just fine.