The one shining light in an absolutely wretched season for Manchester United, whether by circumstance or design, has been the blooding of a number of academy graduates.
For some, like Donald Love, it has been an overwhelming experience, but for others such as Marcus Rashford and Timothy Fosu-Mensah the returns in the short-term have been positive. The problem with such a dramatic introduction (in Rashford’s case, four goals in his first two games) is that such a bright start is usually unsustainable. Expectations have been raised at a time when the rest of the team is failing badly. The hopes for a season have already been placed on the shoulders of a young player in Anthony Martial. The Frenchman has so far demonstrated his ability to carry such an onerous burden. The question is whether such a weight of responsibility, even if deposited on a young player’s shoulders unintentionally, can stunt their growth. Can too much be expected of them too soon? Alternatively, can exposure to first team football, even in a failing team and a toxic environment be the making of them?
Adnan Januzaj’s name first entered the consciousnesses of the average United fan towards the end of Sir Alex’s final season at the club. Regular watchers of the club’s age-group sides were predicting a first-team future and, with an eye to his legacy, Ferguson included the young Belgian, the son of Kosovan immigrants, in the matchday squad. His intention appeared to be to introduce the youngster as a substitute, but with hosts West Brom pegging United back from a 5-2 lead more experienced reserves were needed to avoid a defeat on his final day.
New manager David Moyes took Januzaj on the club’s pre-season tour and played him in Rio Ferdinand’s testimonial game against Sevilla. He performed creditably and made his first-team debut as a substitute in the Charity Shield against Wigan Athletic. His Premier League debut came a month later as a substitute and his first start saw him score twice, the second a beautifully executed volley, in a 2-1 win at Sunderland. Soon United fans were singing about ‘the boy who could do anything’. And indeed it appeared he could. In a team visibly shrinking before their eyes, here was a genuine talent, as graceful and balanced on the ball as the winger he aimed to replace, Ryan Giggs. With the title-holders falling apart, here there was a potential saviour, at the age of only 18. From wanting to use his sparingly, Moyes suddenly found himself introducing the youngster to try and save games. It was too early for him and inevitably he was unable to perform miracles.
With Januzaj’s contract set to run out that summer, and with the loss of Paul Pogba still tormenting their minds, United moved quickly to block off the interest of big European clubs and committed themselves to a significant new five year deal for the teenager. At 18 the player was suddenly fabulously wealthy.
With Moyes having been replaced by Louis Van Gaal, United gave Januzaj Ryan Giggs’ number 11 shirt for the 2014/15 season. It was a significant gesture from a club obviously convinced that they had found the Welshman’s heir. The Belgian, however, struggled to make an impact in a squad now containing Angel Di Maria. Asked to play in several roles as his manager failed to settle on a preferred formation, he was in and out of the side, making only 21 appearances in all competitions that season.
This season his fortunes have fallen even further. In late August, having played four times for the first-team, scoring the winning goal at Villa Park, Van Gaal decided that Januzaj was welcome to leave on loan. The Dutchman later claimed that he wanted the new 20 year old to stay in England, but the player pushed through a move to Borussia Dortmund. Already possessing enormous quality, the German’s manager Thomas Tuchel was able to offer little first team football and, when the loan was cancelled in January 2016, suggested that Januzaj did not have the drive and determination to succeed at the highest level. On his return to United little first-team football has been forthcoming. The player appears to be in limbo, clearly far too good for the under-21 team for whom he primarily features, but not good enough for a wretched first-team. He has had to watch Marcus Rashford surge past him, the wonderkid of the moment as he once was.
The fear for Rashford in particular is that the hopes of a fanbase has been unconsciously placed on his shoulders. His manager, with little capital in his fight to keep his job, knows that by playing young players he can keep some of the fans onside whilst also claiming to the men that will decide his fate that he is upholding the values of Manchester United. Circumstances have conspired, as they did with Januzaj, so that Rasford is seen as the great white hope. Ideally young players would be blooded slowly, surrounded by senior players capable of offering a guiding hand and and keeping the limelight off their inexperienced shoulders. There is already talk of a sizeable new contract for Rashford. Fortune did not come as quickly for Ryan Giggs or the Class of ’92. It is a lot to cope with for any teenager. One day Rashford and Fosu-Mensah were playing in the giant, cavernous cathedral that is Old Trafford in front of 75,000 people, the next they were back at school. Their anonymity has been lost, perhaps forever, as has any difficulty is gaining the attention of girls.
We must therefore question whether the burden now placed on young shoulders, the bright spot keeping alive a desperately poor season, is conducive to the development of young footballers. Of course, much will depend upon the character of the individual, but for any teenager the changes in lifestyle and pressure to perform will be huge. For Januzaj it appears that those pressures may have been too much and his talent over-estimated by a fanbase and club desperate for a saviour. Or perhaps the talent is there but, as Tuchel opined, the drive to succeed is not. Either way Januzaj feels like a victim of circumstance. 26 years before the Belgian’s debut, another skinny teen was experiencing his debut season at United in a desperately underperforming team facing the fortnightly ire of the fans inside Old Trafford. Lee Sharpe appeared thirty times in a campaign he started at only seventeen years of age. The following year, another wretched one in the league, he would play a further thirty times. His third season, as United began the steep upward curve that would eventually lead them to the title, Sharpe exploded and was a vital component of the team that went on to win the European Cup Winners’ Cup. He had developed despite adversity all around him. It was never hoped, however, that Sharpe would rescue a season. For Rashford, and to a lesser extent Fosu-Mensah, it is. We can only hope that they rise to the challenge rather than lose their way as Adnan Januzaj has.