Match rhythm. It is the esoteric concept that Louis van Gaal insists a player must meet if he is to perform for Manchester United. Nobody is immune from this rule – players must have a few kilometres on the legs before they can be deployed for close to 90 minutes in the first team. Except, of course, for Marouane Fellaini at Anfield.
The Belgian was bizarrely rushed back into the first team after a month on the sidelines. Not only that, but Van Gaal’s goto guy played the full 90 minutes in United’s defeat to Liverpool. In a performance so abjectly poor at team level, Fellaini still managed to stand out as the worst player on the pitch. The Belgian’s game was summed up by an idiotic elbow on Emre Can, which should have led to a suspension for the Europe League return leg this Thursday had the match referee not omitted the incident from his report.
Suspension would have come as a relief to United’s supporters – the former Everton man represents everything that went wrong with both the David Moyes and Van Gaal eras. He is an emblem of the type of football supporters hate – aimless long balls and excruciatingly slow play.
The reality is that despite claims of his prowess in the air Fellaini ranks just 41st in the Premier League for aerial contests won per game. In fact, Fellaini wins less than 50 per cent of his contests – 2.6 from 5.3 per game. For a skill at which Fellaini is supposedly élite that’s not a a world-class return. Perhaps the Belgian’s only truly world-class qualities are his chest control and pointy elbows.
In fact United’s record with and without Fellaini in Premier League and European Competition this season is also a damning indictment. Van Gaal’s team is better when Fellaini misses out.
With Fellaini: 6 wins, 7 draws, 9 losses, 27% win ratio, 1.13 points per game.
Without Fellaini: 13 wins, 3 draws, 3 losses, 68% win ratio, 2.21 points per game.
In a large enough sample size there is correlation in the data – Van Gaal’s team is better when the midfielder does not play. In a defensive midfield role Fellaini is not mobile enough to partner any player in the squad, especially when used alongside Bastian Schweinsteiger or Michael Carrick. Fellaini does not offer enough of a goal threat to partner Morgan Schneiderlin, and he is not good enough defensively if he’s paired with Ander Herrera. Whatever way the combination is cut, Fellaini does not work for United – both subjectively and in the data.
[blockquote who=”” cite=””]In fact United’s record with and without Fellaini in Premier League and European Competition this season is also a damning indictment. Van Gaal’s team is better when Fellaini misses out.[/blockquote]
The midfielder cannot be trusted to remain disciplined either. Fellaini has provided a long list of questionable stomps, elbows and other undisciplined acts that have resulted in cards and suspensions. The player started the campaign on the sidelines after what was described as a “stupid” red card on the final day of last season in United’s draw with Hull City. It resulted in a three match ban.
Van Gaal has used Fellaini as an attacking midfielder t00, but in a set-up already lacking pace, the Belgian kills off any chance of operating a speedy forward line when he is thrown into the fray. It is true that at times Fellaini has been handy when Van Gaal’s side is chasing goals, but it is questionable whether ‘plan B’ should become ‘plan A’ – selecting the player ahead of more talented options such as Juan Mata and Herrera. After all, no opposition defence is troubled by the lack of pace offered by Fellaini and Wayne Rooney.
Yet, it is also ridiculous that despite all the player’s flaws Fellaini stands as one of Van Gaal’s favourites – and the Dutchman does have his preferred members of the squad. In a week where Van Gaal has come under fire from fans and the press, it was no surprise that Fellaini offered up the strongest defence of his manager.
“We didn’t press well in the first half,” said the Belgian. “The second half was much better and we had more possession of the ball. But in the first half we didn’t show enough respect to the game plan of the manager. That’s why we conceded a lot of chances. The plan before the game was to press from the start. We didn’t do it well.”
That the Belgian came to his manager’s aid is no great surprise: when Van Gaal is given his marching orders, as early as this summer, it will shock many if Fellaini is not among the first to join him.
Indeed, Fellaini’s selection against Liverpool may come to be seen as a hallmark of the Van Gaal era. It sums up a confusing and infuriating time at the club – one that should end sooner and not later. Few fans will shed a tear when Van Gaal leaves; fewer still when Fellaini is finally sold on.