He is, said one prominent journalist around this time last year, a “strange player.” Possessing neither the technical skill that is typical of an attacking player at a top club, nor the defensive instincts required to lock down a place in David Moyes’ central midfield, Marouane Fellaini has, somehow, become a central figure at Manchester United this season. Indeed, the Belgian returns to Everton this weekend as the central narrative in this weekend’s action and a key player in United’s recent revival.
Fellaini’s impact has been significant – particularly over the last eight matches – although it is one found not in the data. After all, the Belgian neither scores goals, creates them, nor boasts a pass completion rate among the best in United’s squad. Yet, the Belgian has struck up a strong relationship with Ashley Young and Daley Blind on United’s left-flank – one part of the “balance” manager Louis van Gaal has been seeking all season. He has become a plan B atypical to the plethora of technical players in United’s squad.
Despite Fellaini’s improvement there is also the view that the Belgian is highly unlikely to be such a key figure a year from now. After all, Van Gaal’s pragmatic approach to locking down a place in the Champions League has enabled Fellaini to overcome a difficult first year at the club; the Dutchman’s challenge is now to win trophies at domestic and European level. It is goal to which many believe Fellaini ill-suited.
Still, with this weekend’s opponent’s Everton is strong form after a difficult campaign it is set to be a game that tests United’s resolve after defeat at Chelsea. The Belgian remains central to United’s cause as the Reds visit Fellaini’s old stomping ground.
“I asked him today and he said ‘it’s a game’, but I think he doesn’t want to admit it,” van Gaal told MUTV of Fellaini’s return to Merseyside. “He is very dry in his answers but I believe it shall be a special game. I hope that the fans receive him like the Chelsea fans received Juan Mata, because I like that very much.”
“Every player who is playing for Manchester United has qualities. I believe Marouane Fellaini has qualities and we want the qualities of Fellaini to dominate in a team. I believe that we are doing that and that’s why his performances are better now.”
Meanwhile, the hosts have found some form in recent weeks, with victories over Burnley, Southampton, Queens Park Rangers and Newcastle United. It is a run that has lifted the Toffees into mid table and away from a potential relegation battle. One that has been achieved in Roberto Martínez’ characteristic pass-and-move style – a philosophy Van Gaal seemingly admires.
“Everton are playing much better and I think that’s because of the manager having a philosophy,” added van Gaal. “When the players believe in that, they can improve. I am always communicating with my players about philosophy, about performance, about attitude, about behaviour.
“That is very important. He sticks to the same philosophy and I believe his players are believing in him and also that philosophy. At the end, you can see it.”
On the pitch Van Gaal is likely to be without Phil Jones, Marcos Rojo and Michael Carrick for the short trip east, although Daley Blind could return. The Dutchman enjoyed a productive spell at left-back in recent weeks, but may be drafted into midfield at Goodison, with Wayne Rooney returning to a striking role. Indeed, with Radamel Falcao suffering another difficult game at Stamford Bridge, the Colombian could find a place on the bench awaits. It has been the on-loan striker’s role for much of a campaign that has yielded just four goals.
Jonny Evans is available after suspension and could come in to the side, although Paddy McNair excelled at Stamford Bridge last week. Meanwhile, Rafael da Silva, who has been out of the team for months anyway, may have played his last game for the club after suffering a broken rib with the under-21s this week. The Brazilian is expected to move on this summer after seven years with the club.
“For you, I shall say it is Daley Blind, but there is a question mark,” said the Dutchman when asked about his players’ availability this weekend. “Rafael, it is unbelievable. He has broken his ribs so he shall not play anymore this season for Manchester United very unfortunately. Januzaj is not such a heavy injury.”
Meanwhile, Martínez is without Steven Pienaar, who is struggling with a muscle problem, although Leon Osman and James McCarthy are fit to play. Everton’s decent form in recent weeks has come after a period in which the Merseysiders flirted with the relegation zone after achieving European qualification last season. Martinez’ side is unbeaten at home in all competitions in 2015 and the team has won its last three Premier League matches at Goodison Park without conceding.
Martínez suffered predictable criticism for Everton’s poor form through the autumn and winter – and finds much simpatico with his opposite number’s challenges.
“It wasn’t easy to find the right formula at Manchester United after Sir Alex Ferguson retired,” Martínez said. “I think what has been really interesting is how long it took to find the right formula but how competitive the team was all through that period.
“When we faced them at Old Trafford in October, if someone had said they would be favourites to finish above the champions, Manchester City, this season, I don’t think you would have believed it. That shows you the incredible turnaround. I do think United will finish strong this season and they are capable of challenging for everything next season.”
Still, Goodison Park has not always been a happy place for United in recent years – the Toffees are looking for a third consecutive home win over Manchester United. This time last season a ‘Grim Reaper’ was ejected from Goodison Park as United slipped to yet another defeat – a publicity stunt, albeit one that said much in Moyes’ last game at the club.
One year on and there has been genuine progress, with plenty of credit due to an unlikely source. Fellaini will surely enjoy his moment on Sunday.
Everton (4-2-3-1): Howard; Coleman, Stones, Jagielka, Baines; Lennon, Barry, McCarthy, Barkley, Miralla; Lukaku
United (4-1-4-1): De Gea; Valencia, Smalling, McNair, Shaw; Blind; Mata, Herrera, Fellaini, Young; Rooney
Everton: Robles, McGeady, Distin, Garbutt, Besic, Atsu, Alcaraz, Koné, Osman, Naismith
United: Valdes, Rafael, Blackett, Evans, Januzaj, Lingard, Perreira, Wilson, Di Maria, Falcao, Van Persie
Everton 65 – Draw 42 – United 82
Referee: Andre Marriner
Assistants: S Ledger, D Bryan
Fourth Official: R Madley
Everton 0-2 United
£1 bet club
United to win 2-0 @ 10/1
Running total: £9.50 up!