Rarely has a 1-1 home draw been so keenly applauded as Manchester United’s first leg Champions League quarter-final with Bayern Munich last week.
Widely tipped to be comfortable winners, in turn crafting another chapter in United’s underwhelming season, Pep Guardiola’s reigning European champions were held to a draw in Manchester that leaves the quarter-final on a knife-edge ahead of the two side’s meeting in Munich on Wednesday.
David Moyes’ Manchester United side has been widely panned as not being good enough for the Premier League, let alone to mix it with Europe’s elite, and he must draw one more big performance from a team that is ageing and firmly in transition if they are to pull off an upset and progress to the semi-finals at the expense of a Bayern side that is easily amongst the world’s best.
Nowhere is the mismatch in the two side’s respective squads more apparent than in the midfield areas. Whereas Bayern can call upon the likes of Toni Kroos, Mario Goetze, Franck Ribery, Arjen Robben et al, United’s midfield—including the likes of Marouane Fellaini and Michael Carrick—looks devoid of creativity in the absence of Juan Mata and pales in comparison with their hosts’.
Alongside Shinji Kagawa, who is in the middle of what could either be a renaissance or a final hurrah, Adnan Januzaj could be unleashed tonight in place of injured player-coach Ryan Giggs to provide a creative spark from the left-hand side of midfield.
Coming up against a side with a plethora of players in his mould, Januzaj has had to deal with the pressure of being United’s creative hub in the first part of his breakthrough season but has found himself rested in recent weeks with the introduction and reintroduction respectively of Juan Mata and Kagawa into the side.
Should he return on Wednesday, Januzaj could prove key for United. As with many of the individual contests across the field, the midfield area looks a mismatch. Compare Januzaj with the likes of Goetze and there is only likely to be one winner.
Goetze has averaged more goals per 90 minutes than Januzaj this season, as well as creating more chances, completing more take-ons (4.51 per 90 minutes to Januzaj’s 2.53) and stepping up to produce at the highest level in the Champions League.
The German international also has twice as many assists as Januzaj and eight goals to the Belgian’s four.
Goetze is further along in his career than Manchester United’s young pretender, and he gives the attacking midfielder something to aspire to going forward. However, while Goetze may be the more likely headline grabber, as one of Bayern’s host of attacking midfield talents, the performance of Januzaj could be the one that tips the tie.
Carrying the creative hopes of United for much of the season, Januzaj is the fourth highest creator of chances at United this season and has proven crucial to the side going forward. Where his attacking midfield counterpart Goetze is eighth in terms of chances created at Bayern, only three United players have created more chances than Januzaj this season.
With Mata cup-tied, Januzaj could assume even more prominence tonight. Only two players have provided more assists for Moyes’ side this season, despite the Glaswegian’s sparing use of his newest star in recent weeks.
It may not be the ideal situation to have placed such a bulk of their attacking plans upon their precocious 19-year-old, but United have performed far better with Januzaj than without this season.
Directly, he has created 7.2 percent of the side’s chances this season, not a huge amount but higher than the 6.6 percent created by Goetze. However, his performances have helped add fluidity to a midfield that has been found wanting on too many occasions this season.
United have lost 44 percent of their league games in which Januzaj hasn’t featured this season—a figure that falls to 33 percent in games in which he has started.
The side as a whole have averaged just eight chances created in the games that Januzaj has not featured. However, they have averaged 10.75 in the 24 games in which he has appeared, rising to 11.8 per game in games he has started.
As well as his impact upon the team’s creative cohesion, Januzaj also has the added benefit of a fleet of foot that has seen him draw more fouls than any United player this season. Felled 54 times in the Premier League this season, only two players have been fouled more per 90 minutes played than Januzaj this season.
Given the manner in which United scored their goal at Old Trafford—from a corner—in tandem with his creative output, the potential selection of Januzaj could prove to be one of the most important selection decisions of either side Wednesday night.
He may not have the profile or be as far in his development as Bayern’s midfield, but without Mata and in need of a goal, Januzaj could prove more important to his team than any one individual within the home midfield.