Fluidity has been hard to come by for David Moyes’ Manchester United. Even the arrival of Juan Mata, with two assists in two games, hasn’t loosened up his tactics. In fact, only Adnan Januzaj has truly broken free of the team's stylistic restraints this season - making his recall against Fulham a must.
After all, what was previously a seemingly benign home fixture has become a must-win game, with United's loss to Stoke City in the last round of Premier League games further piercing their hopes of a top-four finish this season.
Not only does Moyes need to beat the Cottagers at Old Trafford, he has to try and do so in an utterly convincing manner. Rene Meulensteen's team are bottom of the Premier League having conceded 53 goals—a division high.
Old Trafford's famous fear factor has dwindled of late and United need to start rediscovering their menace, even if they're only able to make examples of the weakest teams for the moment. Against Fulham, Januzaj would be the perfect player to set the tone for what needs to be done.
The Kosovar-Albanian prodigy has been a revelation this season as one of the few players to actually blur the lines within Moyes' rigid system. While others have appeared suffocated by the new manager's strict demands for two banks of four and a greater emphasis on shape and positioning, the young winger has been something of a maverick at times.
Up and down the flanks and drifting into the middle, he's added the kind of between-the-lines movement and courage on the ball to give United that much-needed spark in attack.
While his frame may still be rakishly thin, Januzaj's mindset has been utterly tenacious. As more senior players have shrunk to the periphery, he has stood tall, posting some of the best average percentages for duels of a regular attacking player.
Nani and Shinji Kagawa boast greater percentages on first glance, but neither have attempted anywhere near as many actions as the youngster. His 28 attempted tackles and 57 attempted take-ons in 19 appearances, 11 of which have been shortened by substitutions on and off the bench, put his more experienced colleagues in the shade.
He is also one of the Premier League's most fouled players. For a club that relied on goals from set-pieces so much earlier in the campaign, having a player who is so obviously targeted by opponents could be the just the sort of assistance United need to kick start their punishment of Fulham.Graphic Showing Januzaj Tackles & Take-Ons Against His Fellow Team-Mates
Getting the first goal could be vital too. When conceding the first goal in the league this season, United have lost eight (against Liverpool, Manchester City, West Bromwich Albion, Everton, Newcastle United, Tottenham Hotspur, Chelsea and Stoke), won three and drawn one. Even though the Cottagers may be in dire straits at present, it's unwise to bet against any team facing United at present.
As you'd expect, Januzaj's main weakness as far as duelling is concerned has been his aerial presence, winning only two of the 13 headed duels attempted.Graphic Showing Januzaj's Defensive Stats vs His Team-Mates
Unsuccessful tackles may not be a great illustration of a player's worth on the pitch, but in a side that has regularly looked limp both in attack and defence, having a player who is at least willing to try and win the ball from the front is a real bonus. A failed challenge could still delay an opponent or help his covering full-back or midfield team-mates to finish the job.
Apart from his fighting spirit, the Januzaj effect is plain to see when watching him out on the pitch. He has the flair, vision and fearlessness to fit into the legacy of United's legendary wingers, from Billy Meredith to Cristiano Ronaldo via George Best, Andrei Kanchelskis and Ryan Giggs.
While the likes of Ashley Young and Antonio Valencia stand out more for their stodgy conformity than the magic they breathe into the flanks, the latest success from the club's youth policy is jinky in the truest sense of the word, yet without the frustrating indulgence of Nani.
Under Moyes and his rather severe system, United have more often than not had to rely on the brilliance of individuals to find a breakthrough. In Januzaj they have a footballer who, like Rooney and Robin van Persie, has looked able to transcend the stifling influence of the system to run riot and inspire those around him.
Yet regardless of the quality of the team's frontmen, they need their young hero to lead by example against Fulham, if only to remind some of older colleagues what it means to be a United player.