It is an age-old problem of course: that a manager is unable, or sometimes unwilling, to extract the very best from one of his players. In fact it is hardly unusual when a new manager comes into an established squad full of players with whom he has never worked or, sometimes, hardly seen. This is the place that David Moyes has found himself in this season, not least when it comes to Shinji Kagawa, Wilfried Zaha, and Fabio da Silva, to name but three.
Yet, it really comes to something when a manager has coached a player for seven years and still doesn’t seem to know how, or where, to get the best of his charge. The biscuit is well and truly taken when the manager’s club spends more than £27 million acquiring said player.
It is, however, the inescapable conclusion from Marouanne Fellaini’s first two months at Manchester United, with the Belgian hardly auspicious in a midfield for whom he was supposedly the saviour. The right man for an area desperately lacking in star quality? Sadly, it seems not.
United’s weekend victory over Fulham in west London is a case in point, with Fellaini left on the bench despite Michael Carrick’s Achilles injury. The 25-year-old appeared as a second half substitute for Tom Cleverley; just in time for the already beaten Fulham to take the game to United in the closing 45. Fellaini was hardly in the mix.
Sure, the player was neat enough in the second period, completing 39 of 43 passes and making two successful tackles, two interceptions and winning three headers. It certainly helps when the Belgian retains possession better than his historical average of less than 80 per cent passes completed, although the majority of Fellaini’s passes were short – safe – and backwards or sidewards. The classic water-carrier.
Yet, Fellaini remains a puzzle. He is, after all, a player who rarely tackles, appears to boast few genuine defensive instincts and, for a giant man, is too easily brushed off the ball. The ease with which Southampton players brushed off the midfielder in recent matches was deeply troubling.
Nor is the Belgian creative either, while his lack of pace and, indeed, tendency to slow the game down has become a distinct frustration. In seven games for United Fellaini has scored none, made none, and averaged just one tackle per game, although rather unhelpfully on six occasions an opposition player has dribbled past the Belgian.
To give the player his due Fellaini has, as the statisticians like to call it, made one key pass. All season that is. Yet, the total pass count oer game is also substantially lower than when Fellaini wore blue, although far more accurate than in previous seasons at least.
The data doesn’t seem to stack up with the fearsome player who was supposed to become “United’s Yaya Toure,” marauding through opposition midfielders to give United both defensive bite and an attacking threat. Aside from the lack of quality demonstrated to date, Fellaini doesn’t appear to have the personality that dominates key matches.
Perhaps the disappointment is simply caused by a remnant of a collective consciousness; that fans’ memory of Fellaini’s contribution for Everton against United in recent seasons was so much more impactful than reality.
It was, after all, just two moments. One goal at Goodison Park, when bullying midfielder-turned-central defender Carrick, on the opening day of the 2012/13 season. Another strike at Old Trafford as Everton drew 4-4 in the previous campaign to damage United’s title hopes.
More pertinent still, neither of these contributions came with Fellaini deployed in the kind of defensive midfield role he has now been tasked with at Old Trafford. The ‘terror’, if it was really that, came with Fellaini doing what he is best at – getting on the end of direct attacking play and set-pieces, when deployed in an attacking role.
Yet, the player is certainly less talented as a withdrawn attacker than Wayne Rooney, Adnan Januzaj and the aforementioned Kagawa. Possibly even less so than Ashley Young, and that really is saying something.
The inference is clear: unless Moyes truly wants to transform United into a functional outfit, deploying percentage football, then Fellaini’s role is predominantly going to be defensive. And in that Moyes cannot extract the greatest possible value from his new acquisition.
It posses the question: why was Fellaini brought to the club at all and, more importantly perhaps, in what role did Moyes hope to use the Belgian giant? Neither answer is substantively clear, nor it seems was Moyes as the transfer window closed in early September.
Still, the player remains confident that his performances will eventually match the very lofty price tag, despite a global community focused in on United’s only major summer acquisition. The period of acclimatization has apparently been steep.
“I am United’s only signing this summer, so the media spotlight has been fully on me,” said Fellaini recently.
“I couldn’t believe what I saw when I arrived at the club. It was a change and a big leap for me. United are the top level. I am used to it now, but I struggled to take it all in at the beginning.
“There have never been any problems between Moyes and myself. It was his decision to leave me out against Stoke, and nothing more. I have taken it well and it is up to me to prove I can play. I can make a real contribution to the team winning trophies in the future.”
In that hope is not lost that Fellaini’s performances will improve, even if the raw ingredients fall short of the very highest quality. Moreover, the midfielder’s rush to protect youngster Januzaj, as the clock ticked towards the final whistle on Saturday, will certainly win round many fans.
A few well-intentioned reducers in upcoming matches, even if poorly timed, will help too. After all, if you can’t be great, be the evil bastard the club has been missing since Roy Keane departed in 2005.