The weeks of social media rumour and paper talk have finally ended with the inevitable arrival of Adnan Januzaj at Sunderland AFC. The general consensus from Black Cats supporters is positive; this is a risk-free loan, for a promising attacking outlet, whose best form was brought out by the very manager he now has for the next ten months.
But is just knowing all this enough to be optimistic, or are we headed for an uncertain season from the Belgian? Because the last time anybody checked in on Adnan Januzaj before this season, he sure wasn’t being talked about the way he once was two years ago.
By most accounts, this is the player who had near-entirely undone himself in the 2015/2016 season. Many point to his underwhelming 161-league-minute half-season at Borussia Dortmund but, when considering his respectable UEFA Europa League performances for Der BVB coupled with his two assists for Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, the winger wasn’t the out-and-out flop most reported him as.
That said; it’s worrying when neither Thomas Tuchel nor Louis van Gaal could motivate a good player to be anymore than average across two seasons; and this is the crux of what has defined Adnan Januzaj since 2014.
Just look at the wingers’ goal contribution record – as an attacking player – over the last two campaigns. Januzaj played eighteen matches yet contributed nothing for 848 minutes in Manchester United’s 2014/2015 season. The following year it got worse, with the player being stricken with two ten-matches-worth of injury bouts across 2016, and whose form immediately came apart in a false dawn following his impressive, season-starting goal against Aston Villa.
This twenty-four month record is not becoming of a player who can take Sunderland from, say 17th to 12th in a season. We don’t need that player. What we do need, however, is the Adnan Januzaj we encountered in October 2013; the one we saw first-hand when the Belgian physically dissected our team with a brace of goals and a man-of-the-match shift.
What Sunderland needs is the Adnan Januzaj that David Moyes once managed; who was the lone highlight in a dark season for Manchester United in 2013/2014. In that season, the Brussels native played a more beneficial 1,640 minutes; got fifteen starts over twenty-seven appearances; scored four and assisted four. As a then-teenager, it was a fine start to Januzaj’s senior career; and by May 2014 he was by no means considered a great player, but one capable of creating great moments.
It also capped off that one season that should provide some encouragement for Sunderland fans. Take Januzaj’s stats from the 13/14 season and compare it to our own players from last season, and see where he can fit: Januzaj bettered any of our players with his 82% pass success and his 1.9 dribbles per game; only Wahbi Khazri and Yann M’Vila bettered his open-play crossing and chance creation rates; and his 1.7 shots per game average ranked only below Khazri, Jermain Defoe and Fabio Borini. Is that first team starter quality? For us, yes.
What those numbers also mean is that, when coached into his known best form, the Belgian international has all the potential of being our best player for this season. From this perspective, at least, a club like ours is the ideal platform for Januzaj to show what he is capable of. It is rightfully suggested that the player is too good to play anywhere below Premier League level. Just look at his record for the Manchester United U21s over the last two seasons: thirty-seven matches, twenty-one goals; a goal contribution in 56% of his matches at a rate of one every 52 minutes!
You could also argue that, within the rotation of a larger (and honestly, better) squad, Januzaj will always be considered a third-to-fourth choice player. After all, he didn’t make any starts in the Bundesliga, and his game time dropped by a half from his season under David Moyes. That would explain his senior competitive rate of 19% goal contribution in his 75 matches to date.
So what that means is whatever is good for Adnan Januzaj will only be good for Sunderland. Right now, we have this talented left-footed player, capable of playing on either wing, in attacking midfield and at centre forward; he’s an absolute whirlwind of pace, sufficient chance creator and hits some fearless take-ons; and this season he will have more opportunities to prove himself than he has ever had in his career so far.
Does Januzaj have his detractions? Sure, and there’s a lot that can be said of them. There’s talk of his questionable motivation, for starts, and you wonder how strong-minded he really is when he’s getting kicked around by a defence that won’t tolerate his fancy s**t. Matters such as this you could say have caused this minor downward slump in the player’s form and value since 2014, and have led to a season where he needs Sunderland as much as Sunderland needs him.
Even at twenty-one years old, this will be something of a defining season for Adnan Januzaj. He may not have done enough yet to truly impress but he is by no means a flop yet. What we need from the player now is a season of excellent performances against the best teams, and not just the poorer sides. If he feels no pressure, then he needs to think on that; because he has all the tools to carry our team’s attack.
All that said; if Adnan Januzaj can do all that, then we will have another loanee gem on our hands. Whether José Mourinho truly foresees the player in his long-term plans is highly debatable too, and with the Belgian on two years left of his Manchester United contract, this is one loanee that could be set up for a good future at Sunderland; so long as he is everything that we know he can be.