The young winger is the talk of English football, but he now needs protection
Adnan Januzaj has undergone a transition from promising Manchester United teenager to household name in the space of a month, but the pressure on the young winger is already reaching unprecedented levels.
The Belgian youngster, who is of Kosovar-Albanian descent, has featured only nine times for United this season. Prior to his debut against Wigan Athletic in the Community Shield, Januzaj had made just 39 appearances for the under-18 and under-21 sides.
Yet Januzaj has produced enough glimpses of talent in those matches to suggest that United may have unearthed a player of unprecedented quality.
Two world-class goals against Sunderland thrust him into the limelight, and players, pundits and managers all over the country have been waxing lyrical ever since.
Gary Neville set the ball rolling by saying Januzaj could be ‘one of the best in the world’. This week, Januzaj’s Manchester United team-mate Robin van Persie said he was ‘in the top one or two’ players he has seen.
United manager David Moyes has called on referees to offer extra protection to Januzaj, who has been the victim of some particularly heavy challenges from defenders.
It has happened so many times before, most recently with Raheem Sterling, who broke into the Liverpool first team in August 2012, and was handed his full England debut by Roy Hodgson just three months later – a ludicrous elevation for a player still to turn 19, and a result of English football’s collective obsession with unearthing a global superstar.
The result for Sterling has been a slow decline in performance level, and the prospect of a loan spell away from Anfield to get his still fledgling career back on track.
This has not always been the case; after making his debut for Manchester United in 1992, David Beckham had to wait almost four years to represent his country. Similarly, Nicky Butt made his United debut in the 1992-93 season, but had to wait until 1996-97 to play for England. Today’s young players are rarely afforded such time to develop.
Already the debate rages as to whether Januzaj could play for England, a premature discussion over a player who has not even made 10 appearances for his club.
He has demonstrated an admirable maturity on the pitch, and must now show the same attitude off it, under the weight of attention which will undoubtedly follow his every move.
The reality check, perhaps, came this week, and from an unexpected quarter. England Under-21 player Tom Ince, son of former Liverpool stalwart Paul. In Ince’s opinion, Januzaj would struggle to break into the England Under-21s, let alone the senior side.
“Look at Raheem Sterling, Ravel Morrison, Wilfried Zaha, myself, Saido Berahino, you’ve got Nathan Redmond too,” said Ince. “All the attacking players we have available, how’s he going to get a game?
“Don’t get me wrong, Januzaj is a fantastic talent. But there’s a lot in the under-21s could run him close. To by-pass those players by bringing someone in: what would that say?”
It is a timely reminder that Januzaj is at the very beginning of what could become a glorious career. But that career will only flourish if the same pressure which has swamped so many previous youngsters is alleviated from his talented shoulders.