Adnan Januzaj wasn't the only good thing about last season — Patrice Evra scored a pretty good goal, after all, and Steven Gerrard fell over — but he wasn't far off. In a sea of mediocrity he sparkled like a particularly exciting fish, one that might, given the right care and attention, grow into an ocean-dominating whale. What do you mean, fish don't grow into whales?
This season, though, he has at times looked a bit of a sprat. (No. Not sorry.) Whatever system United have been playing, Januzaj's been a peripheral presence, largely restricted to cameos from the bench. Few of those cameos have been particularly inspiring, and the general consensus is that young Adnan, so soon after all the fuss about his international eligibility and his contract, has come down with an acute case of second season syndrome.
These things happen, of course; that's why it's a syndrome. And things have been particularly chaotic at United this year: a new manager bringing his new philosophy; several exciting changes of formation; an influx of new players and an exodus of the old. If last season was a chance to get acquainted with his undoubted talent, then this has been the reminder that talent is only a small part of what makes a footballer.
What next season might be isn't clear. One set of rumours have Januzaj heading out to Everton on loan, a move that makes sense given Roberto Martinez and Louis van Gaal seem fairly compatible, philosophically speaking. Barcelona youngster Gerard Deulofeu seemed to enjoy his time there last season (though admittedly he's had less fun at Sevilla this season). If he is to go out on loan somewhere, there's worse destinations.
But another, more interesting possibility was floated in the Daily Mail yesterday. Apparently United intend to keep him at Old Trafford and:
are keen on moulding him into a centre-forward. [...] Januzaj still features in Van Gaal's long-term vision and there is a view that the 20-year-old can have a future playing centrally, rather than out wide. Those who have worked with Januzaj at youth level believe he has the game to play through the middle for United. And Van Gaal, who is said to still have huge faith in the forward despite his lack of playing time, is keen to experiment with the youngster in that position.
This isn't the first time that this has been mooted: months ago, when the Premier League had yet to start and United were tearing pre-season apart with three at the back, Van Gaal referred to Januzaj as one of his forwards. And ever since Januzaj emerged into the first team, those who know about this sort of things have been making noises about his future lying in the centre.
So. If he's going to be playing up front, what kind of up front player is he going to be? The first answer to this is probably: nothing like any of the rest of them. Wayne Rooney, Robin van Persie and Radamel Falcao — we'll leave James Wilson aside, since he is young and not yet fully-formed — are all, to a greater or lesser extent, not just forwards but strikers. Finishers. There's more to each of their games than poaching, at least in theory, but they are nevertheless all poachers, in greater or lesser proportions.
Whereas Januzaj, at least based on what we've seen of him, isn't. This doesn't mean he can't learn, of course — Cristiano Ronaldo wasn't much of a finisher when he arrived at United — and nor does it mean he can't be a forward. But it does suggest that asking him to hang around on the shoulder of the defender, or to nose around the penalty area looking for spaces, isn't going to be getting the best out of him.
There's also the physical side of things. Look at him. Look at his slim shoulders, his wiry frame, his 'kick me' haircut. He's not going to bully defenders, not with that physique, and he's not going to be able to play much of the game with his back to goal, shielding the ball and bringing other players in. And while he can and maybe should bulk up — see Ronaldo again — it would be a waste to try to use him like a big English centre forward. A waste of his talent, and a waste of everybody else's time.
What Januzaj is, though, is a lovely little mover: David Moyes, not one of nature's hyperbolists, compared him to a young Johann Cruyff. There is a subsection of footballers who look incomplete without the ball, and Januzaj's one of them: pass to him, and he stops being a gangly kid and becomes a willowy delight (even if this season he's been quickly back to the gangles as the ball bobbles away). Add to that a decent shot and the ability to glide past defenders (again, not so much this season) and a role starts to appear.
For all that it's not a particularly appealing idea, then, the best thing United could do is look along the road to Liverpool. Last season's title challenge owed much to Daniel Sturridge and Luis Suarez, who respectively managed not to injure themselves and not to racially abuse anybody else, but Raheem Sterling also flourished. And he did so in large part after Brendan Rodgers switched him into the middle, stuck him behind the strikers, and let him pick up the ball and run. The kind of thing tactics wonks call a "central winger", and everybody else calls "a quick lad in the middle".
If Januzaj is going to move into the centre, then he's going end up playing something like this. One or two proper strikers ahead of him, occupying the central defenders; one or two passing midfielders behind him, giving him the ball. Drifting from side to side, exchanging passes with the wingers. Looking either to collect the ball and take on a defender, or run beyond the striker and pick up a through ball. A No. 10, but not a playmaker.
Or, if you prefer, like Marouane Fellaini, except taking the ball with his feet rather than his chest, and facing forwards rather than back. At some point, after all, his fellow Belgian is going to have to be relegated back to Plan B; hitting the big man might win the occasional game, but it won't win titles. Januzaj has it in him to be not just brilliant, but beautiful as well. Give him a striker to stand off, give him space to run into, and give him the ball. Maybe he'll never be a whale. But he could make one hell of a swordfish.