World Cup 2018: Lost boy Adnan Januzaj enjoys England redemption
He became a headline name in a season that Manchester United are still in the process of recovering from, but while many fans of the English Premier League may have forgotten about the prodigious star of the 2013/14 campaign, he gave them a timely reminder on Thursday.
Adnan Januzaj scored the only goal of the game as England suffered their first defeat of the 2018 FIFA World Cup, and the creative Belgian midfielder showed all the attributes of the player that became a rare highlight in a difficult time at Old Trafford. There was a confident poetry to his movement as he made space for himself in the area, before delivering a sublime finish.
Still only 23, it is easy to forget just how young Januzaj was when he burst onto the scene under new manager David Moyes in 2013. Entrusted with taking the team forward following the retirement of Sir Alex Ferguson, Moyes eventually struggled under the demands of such a challenge, but it was Januzaj who offered him hope.
Although he scored just four goals, Januzaj was the only creative spark, and Moyes became increasingly reliant on the former Anderlecht starlet as his big-name players failed to produce. When Moyes left before the end of the season, a little piece of Januzaj went with him, and his opportunities would quickly become limited under Louis van Gaal.
The rise and fall
Van Gaal implemented an approach that dismissed the traditional values of Manchester United, but his philosophy did stem the decline after the club had failed to qualify for Europe for the first time since 1990. His approach also decided that Januzaj would only be a bit-part player in the team that had brought him to prominence the season before.
Adapting to the fact that Ferguson was no longer manager brought a change in culture at Manchester United. Van Gaal was never going to be a long-term appointment, and the club hierarchy decided to retain the services of Januzaj in appreciation of the potential in him following his incredible impact under Moyes. Loan moves to Borussia Dortmund and Sunderland would follow over the next two seasons.
Despite linking-up once again with Moyes at Sunderland, Januzaj failed to find the same spark at the Stadium of Light that had made him such an exciting prospect. In the summer of 2017, he completed a move to Spanish side Real Sociedad, signing a five-year deal that confirmed his departure from Manchester United. Last season he scored four goals, equalling his previous best-return that came during that 2013/14 campaign.
Januzaj's potential in 2013 was also noted by the national teams that he was eligible to represent, and eventually, it was Belgium who secured his services, although it took a lot of soul-searching for Januzaj to select his country of birth ahead of Albania. Kosovo were not a recognised UEFA nation at the time, a country with which the young midfielder also has a strong connection with.
Eventually, Januzaj committed himself to Belgium and was included in Marc Wilmots' 23-man squad for the 2014 FIFA World Cup. International identity is a very personal matter and means much more to some individuals than others. Deciding on his international future was a difficult and confusing time for Januzaj, and may well have had a negative impact on his game.
More and more players are now eligible to represent more than one country. For some, it will be a purely professional decision, and the choice will be made based on what nation can help enhance their career the most. For others, it is a deeply personal issue, and many will choose the nationality that they have always considered themselves to be, regardless of professional profile and major tournament opportunities.
The next chapter
Making the decision coincided with the decline in Januzaj's form at Manchester United. Although the appointment of van Gaal would have been an overriding factor, it still would have been a distraction that the midfielder could have done without at such a delicate and important time in his career. In fact, the emotion of his goal against England on Thursday said just that.
The importance of the match against England had been played down by Belgium manager Roberto Martinez in the build-up. With both teams already through to the knock-out stages of the competition and a tougher run to the final awaiting the group winners, the best result became a popular topic of pre-match debate. However, Januzaj made his feelings more than clear as the ball evaded goalkeeper Jordan Pickford.
For Januzaj, it represented more than just scoring for his chosen country, it meant scoring against the country that had witnessed his rise and fall in the unforgiven waters of the Premier League. His goal, which would prove to be the winning goal, gave him the voice and stage to remind everyone of his talent, and that his departure from Manchester United didn't represent the end of his career.
Januzaj is a talented player who became a teenage saviour for Moyes as he struggled to succeed Ferguson at Old Trafford, but also found his career path paved with difficult decisions. Now settled in Spain as a Belgian international, Januzaj has reached an age where he can mature into the next chapter of his career without distraction.
And he will enter into this new chapter without the same weight of expectancy that was put upon him by Moyes, and without the international controversy that clearly impacted on his game in those early years.
The World Cup has been the springboard to many top-level careers in the past, and Januzaj has now put himself very much in the plans of Roberto Martinez as Belgium head into the knock-out stage.
Do you think Adnan Januzaj can still fulfil the potential he showed back in his early days at Manchester United? Tell us in the comments below!