[dropcap]A[/dropcap]lthough there have been notable bumps in the road, Manchester United are heading back in the right direction following the summer appointment of experienced new manager Louis van Gaal.
The outspoken and at times outrageous Dutch coach has a proven track record of success and with the Old Trafford outfit in a strong position to qualify for next term’s Champions League and apparently with money to burn, United look set to challenge for silverware again sooner rather than later.
Despite the glamour summer arrivals of the likes of Radamel Falcao and Ángel Di Maria to name just two, one of the major positives of Van Gaal’s tenure at the club so far has been the former Netherlands coach’s ability to get the best out of the squad he has inherited.
Not only has the Dutchman blooded a number of young stars such as Tyler Blackett and Paddy McNair, but he has resurrected the fortunes of a host of players that were being handpicked for criticism last term.
Ashley Young’s reinvention as a left wing-back has been nothing short of extraordinary, while on the other flank Antonio Valencia has been playing his best and most consistent football in years.
Captain Wayne Rooney has revelled in a deeper midfield role, big-money signing and David Moyes’ favourite Marouane Fellaini has played his part in progress and David de Gea has continued his impressive evolution into one of the game’s finest custodians.
However, within a competitive club like Manchester United, not everyone can play and there naturally will be those that fall by the wayside.
Although the marginalisation of the likes of Tom Cleverley and Anderson will not come as much of a surprise, Adnan Januzaj’s regression since Van Gaal’s arrival will be something of a concern for the Old Trafford faithful.
One of the few plus points from Moyes’ time in Manchester, the young Belgian winger exploded onto the scene at the start of last season and was widely heralded as the next in line to become a world-class winger in the red of United.
At times last season, despite the experience and status of his team-mates, Januzaj was singled out as a player to give the team inspiration; getting the ball to him seemed to be a major part of an admittedly failing United gameplan.
After featuring in 27 of United’s Premier League games in 2013-14, 15 of those from the first whistle, the 19-year-old was expected to kick-on this term and start to command a regular first-team role on one of the flanks.
However, with only four Premier League starts this season and a total of 434 minutes on the pitch so far, Januzaj’s progress has clearly halted.
The major issue for the Kosovo-born teenager is Van Gaal’s preferred tactics of deploying three centre-halves and the now-increased competition for places in midfield.
In the Dutchman’s 3-4-1-2 formation, the wing-backs are expected to act as additional attacking weaponry; something that Januzaj would obviously have no problem fulfilling.
However, it is going back towards his own goal where the Belgium international lacks confidence and stature.
Young and Valencia have been the most frequent incumbents of the wide roles in Van Gaal’s teams and although neither are natural defenders as such, both are extremely competitive, diligent and hardworking going back towards their own goal.
Januzaj’s slight frame and the fact that he is still learning the finer details of the game mean that if and when he is deployed as a wing-back the opposition quite possibly will see his defensive naivety as an opportunity rather than his attacking ability as a threat.
The teenager is versatile enough to play in other positions, but in the 3-4-1-2 system the only other suitable role is as the number ten behind two strikers.
Although fully capable of playing there and more than likely dreaming of being given the chance to do so, his path is blocked by more seasoned and illustrious campaigners.
Juan Mata has been thriving in this position over recent weeks, while Di Maria will likely be in contention to play there also now that he has returned from injury.
With scope for Rooney to also be deployed as the number ten if Van Gaal picks two of Daley Blind, Ander Herrera, Marouane Fellaini, Michael Carrick and Darren Fletcher in the centre of midfield, Januzaj is well down the pecking order.
The 19-year-old’s last United start in the Premier League came against Crystal Palace at the beginning of November; significantly Van Gaal fielded a back four in that clash and Januzaj has featured sparingly since the reemergence of a back three in recent months.
Although United have had a dire injury record this season, Van Gaal revealed yesterday that Young is the only player not available for this weekend’s clash with Southampton at Old Trafford.
As such, expect United to persist with three at the back and Januzaj to continue to be on the fringes of things unless something drastically changes.
With the January transfer window open, the potential for a loan move elsewhere for six months and regular first-team football seems like a feasible and potentially confidence-restoring option.
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