Manchester United's Adnan Januzaj has had a summer of mixed blessings. On the one hand he was called up to the Belgian World Cup squad, but on the other, did not get much of a chance to show his stuff on the biggest stage.
At club level, his status appeared to be confirmed when he was handed the No. 11 shirt. The significance of that was readily apparent. Since persistent squad numbers have been part of the English footballing landscape, the No. 11 shirt had only one previous incumbent.
Ryan Giggs is a key part of the coaching setup that handed Januzaj the number. I have previously written about Januzaj's capacity to live up to it. Since then, though, whilst the young man's qualities remain, things have changed somewhat at United.
Louis van Gaal's switch to a 3-4-1-2 system, designed to accommodate Wayne Rooney, Robin van Persie and Juan Mata seems to be bad news for Januzaj. Yet to start under Van Gaal, Januzaj has been used as a substitute in three separate roles; wing-back, central midfielder and No.10.
Of the three, only No. 10 seems a natural fit for the youngster, and even that has not been where his best senior performances have come for United. Playing without out-and-out wingers, Van Gaal's approach thus far leaves Januzaj battling for a place in United's attack with established superstars.
Before the signing of Angel Di Maria, Januzaj seemed a shoe-in for a starting spot on the left of the front three, assuming Van Gaal eventually planned to switch to the 4-3-3 he has used throughout his career.
However, now that Di Maria and Radamel Falcao, per ManUtd.com, have arrived, Januzaj's route to the first team is unclear. With Mata, Rooney, Van Persie, and the two new signings all commanding a great deal of status at the club, where does the young Belgian fit in?
To lean toward to the positive, Januzaj is surrounded by spectacular, experienced, proven talent, from whom he can learn much. He has shown an impressive confidence in his own abilities. Van Gaal is a coach with an extensive track record of developing young talent and not bowing to reputation.
Also, United's transfer dealings would suggest a 4-3-3 may be deployed sooner rather than later, given how much United have strengthened in the centre of midfield. With Di Maria comfortable in a midfield three, perhaps Januzaj could take a berth in the front three after all.
That is far from guaranteed, though, and the youngster will have to display every ounce of his talent to force his way into Van Gaal's starting XI.
The less positive spin for Januzaj is that with no European football, and United already out of the League Cup, opportunities for rotation are thin on the ground. Whilst Di Maria can, and almost certainly often will, play in midfield, he is still a very gifted winger, who could easily nudge Januzaj out of the XI.
Di Maria's skill-set is the only one at the club which is truly similar to Januzaj—the pace and invention, combined with superb delivery. Hopefully Januzaj will be able to use the Argentine as a role-model, rather than a rival.
It is worth pointing out that Januzaj's lack of a starting XI berth so far this season is likely to be at least in part due to his extended post-World Cup break. He is a little behind his colleagues in terms of fitness, having not been part of United's pre-season tour.
Januzaj is an undeniably talented young player, who appears to have the necessary credentials to aspire to the highest levels of world football. United's summer transfer activity in general, and Di Maria's signing in particular appears to be an obstacle to his development.
The pressure may have a negative effect on him, hampering his confidence and thus impeding his growth. However, perhaps conquering that obstacle will be the very challenge he needs to help take him to the top.
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