His ragged mane, flailing arms and rangy somatotype make Marouane Fellaini one of the most outwardly complex-looking players around. But—those sharp elbows aside—there’s something fundamentally endearing about the manner in which the Manchester United midfielder plays the game.
The Belgian has been central to the Red Devils’ emphatic victories over Tottenham Hotspur and Liverpool as of late, before building on that form with a brace for his national team. After becoming a figure of widespread social media ridicule in the season following his £28 million transfer from Everton, things are looking up again for the former Standard Liege man.
To be fair, it’d be intriguing to see whether Louis van Gaal would have kept hold of Fellaini this summer had the Belgian been fully fit. Indeed, injuries conspired against the player at the start of the season on the back of a World Cup that showed glimpses of his former rumbustious self. Rumors of a potential move to Napoli on loan were scuppered when Fellaini was ruled out for the opening weeks of the campaign.
But as time has passed, United’s Dutch chief seems to have warmed to the attributes of this rather unique player, with Fellaini first showing a glimpse of what he can do with a classy cameo coming off the bench away at West Bromwich Albion. Ever since that match—in which a goal from the former Toffee jolted United into life—the Belgian has been on the periphery of the squad; now he’s playing an increasingly critical role.
It’s the kind of status Fellaini has not previously enjoyed in his days as a United player to date. Drafted in for big money by David Moyes, the gangly midfielder became negatively synonymous with the reign of the former Everton boss and the wretched football that engulfed Old Trafford under the watch of Sir Alex Ferguson’s hand-picked heir.
If anything, Fellaini’s own fortunes were hampered by the principles that saw Moyes employ a mish-mash of tactics during his time in the hot-seat. Harshly notorious for an overly-direct, moribund style of play, pushing Fellaini behind the striker—undeniably his best position—would have prompted further cat-calls about a team ethos that was removed from the quintessential “United way” for Moyes. So he refrained from doing so.
As such, Fellaini toiled, chased shadows, grew frustrated and swung arms in a deeper role. But despite the surfeit of classy attacking midfield men in this United squad and the range of skilful forwards capable of thriving in a withdrawn position behind the striker, Van Gaal clearly sees value in Fellaini and playing to the strengths that have been underexploited since for almost the entirety of his United career.
And why not? After all, the Belgian can provide a phenomenal outlet to a side, allowing teams that are entrenched in their own half to ping the ball forward then play off Fellaini’s velcro-like chest control and aerial prowess. Moyes seemed tentative about employing such tactics, but Van Gaal—with his wealth of experience, collection of medals and brash attitude to back up his decision-making—has had no qualms about it.
It’s probably no surprise that one facet of United’s recent upturn in form has been a proper utilization of Fellaini. A midfield trio containing him, Michael Carrick and Ander Herrera may not be bristling with stardust, but there’s balance and an encouraging mixture of attributes between the three that have given this side something to gravitate towards.
There’s no shame in playing a little direct either. The very best sides on the continent mix up their playing style—Bayern Munich boss Pep Guardiola played Javi Martinez in an advanced role against Borussia Dortmund last season looking to ping the ball over their press, while Barcelona’s winning goals in El Clasico recently were from a set-piece and a long pass forward—and it’s vital that United have variety to their play if they’re going to retake their place atop of English and European football. A player like the Belgian can be absolutely invaluable in these instances.
It’ll be intriguing to see whether Fellaini will still be in this squad when they do eventually get back to those levels, but he has a vital role to play on the journey. Van Gaal clearly admirers the physical presence he can bring to his side and while he may not be the most easy on the eye at times, that won’t matter to the Dutchman provided the Red Devils continue to pick up the results needed to surge up the table.
When Fellaini first signed at Old Trafford, there were plenty trotting out the line that he “wasn’t a United player”. While the age-old principles of this United team—pace, skill and directness—certainly don’t apply to the Belgian, as the club looks to re-establish itself amongst the very best in the modern game, it’s vital they become adaptable to various situations and opponents.
With that in mind, while Fellaini may not adhere to the bespoke principles that have defined this team during the Premier League years, perhaps that’s not necessarily a bad thing.
Follow Matt on Twitter @MattJFootball
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