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RENAISSANCE

The former ‘wonderkids’ who’ve found redemption in San Sebastian this season

Adnan Januzaj has already had plenty of labels in his relatively short career.

He was the next big thing at Man United under David Moyes and the only real highlight of the Scot’s dreadful nine months at Old Trafford, but he was branded untrustworthy by Moyes’ successor Louis Van Gaal.

He was anonymous at Borussia Dortmund and then just another symbol of poor decision-making at relegated Sunderland, before he was deemed surplus to requirements by Jose Mourinho.

But at Real Sociedad, on the Bay of Biscay in Spain’s glorious tourist hot spot of San Sebastian, Januzaj has found redemption.

The bad times

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The bad times

He’s not the only one, either.

At Txuri-urdinak, who’ve laid siege to La Liga’s top four this season, the form of Martin Odegaard and Alexander Isak has also caught the eye in much the same way.

Together, the trio make an interesting band of former ‘wonderkids’ who were castaway, given up on, or otherwise didn’t quite get the time they deserved.

On the rise

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On the rise

Soceidad’s manager Imanol Alguacil deserves some credit for Januzaj’s particular resurgence, displaying some degree of trust in the young Belgian that’s reminiscent of Moyes’ belief all those years ago, coupled with the determination and ‘tough love’ that he should’ve experienced under Van Gaal and Mourinho.

But Januzaj has naturally regained some of his old confidence thanks to a consistent spell in the side that neither sees him being overlooked or under pressure.

Roughly half of his appearances in La Liga this term have been in the starting line-up, while his average WhoScored rating of 6.62 means he doesn’t particularly standout, for good or for bad.

Above everything else, maintaining his confidence is what’s been important and he’s repaid the team and his manager with loyalty and commitment – notably turning down attractive offers from Milan and Roma in January.

Out of the limelight

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Out of the limelight

Januzaj’s rise, fall and rise again is mirrored by teammate Odegaard, who’s played a starring role for Sociedad this season while on loan from Real Madrid.

The young Norwegian possibly had even greater weight to contend with – having become a worldwide phenomenon at the age of just 16 when he joined the Spanish giants after becoming an overnight sensation with Stromsgodset.

A frustrating two years with Madrid’s reserve team Castilla followed, which saw the odd set-up of him training with the first team but playing matches for the reserves.

Then-Madrid manager Carlo Ancelotti was said to be wildly unimpressed with him, even claiming his signing was a PR stunt from the club’s president Florentino Perez.

He wrote in his book Quiet Leadership: “When Florentino buys a Norwegian footballer, you simply have to accept it.

“Furthermore, the president decided that he would have to play three games for the first team as part of a PR exercise.”

PR stunt?

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PR stunt?

Still only 21 years old, Odegaard has finally started to live up to his early hype with some scintillating performances with Sociedad this season – so good, in fact, that many fans feel he deserves a place in La Liga’s team of the year.

Spanish football writer Sid Lowe even claimed he was in the running for the best player in the league during the early months of the campaign.

As the heart of Sociedad’s attacking play, Odegaard boasts an impressive WhoScored rating of 7.29 with seven goals and eight assists – including one in the 4-3 Copa del Rey win over Real Madrid in February – while mainly operating in the playmaker role in the team, similar to that of Luka Modric at Madrid.

This is significant because the Croatian is seemingly coming towards the end of his career at the Santiago Bernabeu, with the 34-year-old starting just 14 times season – with the general feeling being that Odegaard will soon be ready to replace him in the side.

Meanwhile, Sociedad legend Robert Lopez Ufarte compared Odegaard to another legendary midfielder; former Sociedad and Madrid hero Xabi Alonso.

Speaking to Spanish outlet Noticias de Gipuzkoa last month, he said: “Xabi Alonso was a midfielder who did these racking passes that stood out, and yes, he [Odegaard] has many similar things and he isn’t too far off Xabi.”

Haunted

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Haunted

Alongside Januzaj and Odegaard sits Isak, the towering striker who’s dealt with his own early career pressures in the same vein as his Norwegian colleague.

Labelled ‘the next Zlatan Ibrahimovic’ at the age of 17 when he scored 13 goals in his debut season with AIK in his native Sweden, he was snapped up by Borussia Dortmund in 2017.

Thrown into the German giant’s reserve team, he made just five appearances with the senior side as he battled with injury problems – usually appearing as a substitute.

Like Odegaard, he spent some time in Holland on loan; a very fruitful half-a-season with Willem II when he netted 14 goals in 18 appearances in the Eredivisie – becoming the first foreign-born player in the league’s history to score 12 goals in his first 12 appearances.

It wasn’t enough to convince his parent club however, and he was sold to Sociedad in the summer of 2019 for just £5.8m – less than Dortmund had paid for him as a teenager.

Now an important goal-scorer for the Basque side, he’s reportedly attracting attention from Barcelona – possibly as a replacement for the ageing Luis Suarez.

Isak has become a regular at Estadio Anoeta this season

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Isak has become a regular at Estadio Anoeta this season

Whether or not Sociedad can hold onto these three rejuvenated youngsters beyond this season remains to be seen.

But each of them has every reason to be eternally thankful to the Spanish side, who saved them from slipping into footballing oblivion.