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The Great Red Debate: What now for Adnan Januzaj?

In this week’s edition of the GRD, Busby Babe writers Ryan Baldi and Jack Sargeant discuss what the future may hold for Manchester United youngster Adnan Januzaj, as the talented Belgian looks to get his fledgling career back on track.

Manchester United v West Ham United - Premier League Photo by Stu Forster/Getty Images

Ryan: There were few positives to be taken from the ill-fated David Moyes era at Manchester United, but the emergence of the then-teenage Belgian midfielder Adnan Januzaj was undoubtedly one of them.

In a miserable season which saw United finish seventh in the Premier League, Januzaj graduated from the youth system to spark life into a flagging side.

With the confidence and assuredness of a senior pro, Januzaj showed no signs of being overawed by being thrust into the limelight and, as the season progressed, his consistently excellent performances made the Brussels-born star virtually undroppable.

But when Moyes was axed and Louis van Gaal took the reins at Old Trafford, Januzaj fell down the pecking order, with murmurings around the club suggesting that perhaps the young man’s attitude was not what was required of a top professional.

Starting opportunities became more and more sporadic throughout the 2014-15 campaign, and after a goal-scoring start against Aston Villa at the beginning of last season, Januzaj was shipped out to German side Borussia Dortmund on a season-long loan.

It was viewed as a chance for Januzaj to gain some first-team experience in one of Europe’s major leagues, while stepping away from the goldfish bowl of Old Trafford.

But Dortmund were arguable better stocked in the attacking midfield positions than United, and Januzaj struggled to break into the BVB line-up. And by January, after starting only three times for the German giants, the loan agreement was scrapped and Januzaj returned to Manchester six months early.

Borussia Dortmund v PAOK FC - UEFA Europa League Photo by Christof Koepsel/Bongarts/Getty Images

So with José Mourinho’s appointment and apparent commitment to proving doubters wrong by utilising young players, what should the plan be with Januzaj?

Jack: There can be little doubting Januzaj's raw talent, though his decision-making on the pitch has certainly been more questionable. He's more than capable of working his way into a dangerous position, though his tendency to always try the audacious necessarily backfires more often than not. Of course, the good news is that, in theory, it's easier to coach decision-making than technique, and there's reason to believe he could yet become a very good player.

The question that remains is whether that's better achieved by staying at United, and, if we're being realistic, featuring only sporadically in the first-team, or being farmed out on another loan. Personally, I'd imagine that the latter would be the preferable option; real game experience must surely be considered a priority for a player who'll turn 22 by the time the season's out. We've seen how helpful it proved for the likes of Jesse Lingard, and it could well have the same effect for Januzaj. Who and where he could go, however, is an interesting thing to ponder.

Manchester United v Sunderland - Premier League Photo by Clive Brunskill/Getty Images

Ryan: I agree, a loan is probabably the best and most likely option. I remeber a couple of years ago, after his breakthrough season, there were reports that Paris Saint Germain were willing to pay over £30 million for Januzaj. Right now, I don’t think he’d fetch much more than a third of that figure if sold. So, aside from the moral point of wanting to develop standout academy graduates into first-team regulars, selling now wouldn’t make a great deal of business sense.

And, as you say, first-team opportunities would appear to be limited. Yes, Mourinho will want to prove he can adhere to the club’s traditions by using a handful of young players next season, but he will not be filling his side with inexperienced potential stars. And while Januzaj was in the wilderness, he was usurped by Marcus Rashford and Timothy Fosu-Mensah — and even Cameron Borthwick-Jackson and Lingard — as the leading bright young things of Old Trafford.

So a loan would seem to be the ideal option. But the club will need to do a much more careful job of selecting the right team for Januzaj to be sent to this time around. The Dortmund deal seemed a strange one right from the off; with their abundance of high-quality attacking midfielders such as Marco Reus, Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Shinji Kagawa, Januzaj faced greater competition for a starting spot with BVB than he would have had he stayed at United.

Januzaj will need to land at a club who play at a decent level and are able to offer him a regular starting berth. Do you think a Premier League club would be preferable, or would Januzaj benefit more from another continental loan?

Jack: Theoretically, I think there could be nothing better for Januzaj than to remain in the Premier League, assuming he wants to make a serious attempt at breaking through into the United first-team.

In practice, however, it may not be the best move. It's unlikely he'd be getting regular football in the top flight at anyone other than a team expected to struggle in the lower half of the table, and even then, we've seen often that managers of these clubs (perhaps understandably) prefer wily experience to raw talent. At this stage, to put it simply, I'm not sure I'd trust Januzaj with my Premier League life. Such a loan could well start off with plenty of promise, but go the way of his experience in Dortmund; there is little patience in youth at the bottom end of the table.

As a result, I wouldn't be at all upset to see him go abroad, even if that means slightly dropping down in footballing quality. I think it's much more important that he gets regular gametime, and some excellent coaching.

Of course there are an inordinate number of clubs that could fit this bill, but as an illustrative example, take a side like Basel, with whom Januzaj would see plenty of football and gain Champions League experience. Add to that the fact that they've got a proven track record of producing excellent players, from Ivan Rakitić to Breel Embolo, and it's clear that this is a relatively low-pressure environment where young players can flourish. Porto — a team who have relied fairly heavily on loan deals of late — would be another potential destination. If I was Ed Woodward, it'd be these sorts of clubs I'd be touting Januzaj to.

Ryan: Absolutely. I think there is a potential lesson to be learnt from Hatem Ben Arfa’s resurgence at Nice in Ligue 1.

Like Januzaj, Ben Arfa emerged as a player of immense talent when breaking through with Lyon over a decade ago. But with questions over his attitude he struggled to parlay his innate ability into a stellar career.

Now, Januzaj’s career has not gone off the rails to anywhere near the extent to which Ben Arfa’s had 18 months ago — the Belgian is a long way off facing the ignominy of being released by Hull City — but there are parallels between the two.

England v France - International Friendly Photo by Shaun Botterill/Getty Images

After playing for high-profile French clubs Lyon and Olympique Marseille before he arrived in the Premier League in 2011, Ben Arfa took a step back and joined Nice last season in an attempt to breathe new life into his wayward career.

At Nice, he found a mid-level French side where he could become the club’s key player while remaining relatively out of the limelight; trusted with an important role while facing less scrutiny than he would have at his previous clubs.

Ben Arfa found he’d struck upon the perfect storm: a top-flight team with potential to overachieve, yet sufficiently uner-the-radar so as to avoid previous pitfalls. The former Newcastle United player produced the most consistently outstanding form of his career, and was voted into Ligue 1’s team of the season. Now rejuvenated, the man once thought of as a wasted talent is attracting interest from PSG and Barcelona.

We all hope Januzaj can get back to the kind of form he showed two seasons ago, and once again become a key player for United. A loan to a well selected club appears to represent his best shot at doing so.

Jack: Yep, it's certainly an apt comparison. And to end on a hopeful note: time is still very much on Januzaj's side. Whereas Ben Arfa has taken the scenic route (or as the case may be, the rather unscenic route) to attracting interest from Europe's biggest clubs, Januzaj is the best part of a decade his junior. Let's hope some careful decision-making this summer enables him to make a much quicker breakthrough.