[dropcap]T[/dropcap]alent and utility are often found in some of the most unexpected places. Cockroaches, for example, are infamously disgusting creatures that cower in the shadows and scuttle out when least expected. Yet, they can also withstand levels of radiation that would kill humans. While the critters may be easily subdued with a quick stomp, it will be the cockroaches that become the dominant earthly species if America and North Korea carry out their recent threats.
Akin to a cockroach for many Manchester United fans’ is Marouane Fellaini. The Belgian is a fundamentally unattractive player, possessing an ugly game filled with elbows and head-butts, and more yellow cards than any other United regular. That’s not to mention a first touch and passing range that is well below par for a Premier League central midfielder. While his gangly frame and ridiculous hair stands out, it is Fellaini’s lack of creativity that is even more noticeable.
The Belgian personified David Moyes’ disastrous tenure at the club, being the only player that the Scot acquired in a dreadful summer 2013 transfer window. Fellaini received criticism, and even jeers, during Louis van Gaal’s reign, with the Dutchman often introducing the player from the bench to alter United’s style of play from boring football to, well, boring hoofball. Yet, despite all the hate, Fellaini has survived under three different United managers.
[blockquote who=”” cite=””]The Belgian personified David Moyes’ disastrous tenure at the club being the only player the Scot acquired in a dreadful summer 2013 transfer window.[/blockquote]
In the last month of the most recent transfer window rumours circulated that a move to Galatasaray might be on. Some corners of social media ironically demanded that Galatasaray “announce Fellaini.” No love lost for a player United fans have likened to a tree, with the turning circle of a cruise ship.
Yet, the departure never came, thanks in no small part to José Mourinho’s faith.
“It’s easier for Galatasaray to get me than Marouane,” said Mourinho. “If they need a manager, they can try and have a chance, but Marouane? Forget it. He’s too important to me.”
That faith appeared to bare little resemblance to the player’s performances. One might assume that the Portuguese manager was being sarcastic, but José could not be more serious.
Rewind to the beginning of the manager’s tenure at United and his sentiment has remained consistent. Fellaini was battling for a midfield starting position with Paul Pogba, Ander Herrera, Wayne Rooney, Michael Carrick, Morgan Schneiderlin and Bastian Schweinsteiger last summer. Rooney, Schneiderlin and Schweinsteiger have all been moved on, while Carrick is yet to play a single minute this season, despite being made club captain. Even last year’s Sir Matt Busby Player of the Year, Ander Herrera, has seen fewer minutes than the Belgian.
It begs the question of why United supporters despise the player when all of his managers have persisted. What can these coaches see in Fellaini that so many fans cannot?
After all, the current trend in top central midfielders bends towards well-roundedness. N’Golo Kanté, Luka Modrić and Herrera all fit this bill, and have been widely praised for their effectiveness. Fellaini is the opposite, a one-dimensional performer who does one thing that none of the aforementioned trio can: cause chaos.
Kanté, Herrera and Modrić are all-action terriers. From one end of the pitch to the other, each covers every inch of grass making tackles, interceptions and launching attacks. The cogs that keep the team ticking.
If these well-rounded midfielders are the new superheroes, then Fellaini is surely the physical embodiment of kryptonite. At Skopje’s Philip II Stadium for the UEFA Super Cup, Real Madrid’s midfield quartet of Modrić, Toni Kroos, Casemiro and Isco caused havoc. Madrid transitioned through United’s midfield with ease and the Spanish side was 2-0 up just after 50 minutes.
With the game slipping from Mourinho’s grasp, Fellaini was introduced with instruction to make a nuisance of himself. Six minutes after coming on as a makeshift target man, the Belgian had caused enough chaos in Madrid’s ranks for United to score. Before Fellaini’s introduction, Mourinho’s side was outclassed, after the Reds created far more chances and looked capable of equalising.
It was not that Mourinho’s team played its way back into the game. This was Mourinho stopping Madrid from playing pretty football by throwing a 6’ 4’’ battering ram into the mixer. The approach was best summarised when Fellaini’s clashed heads with Sergio Ramos in the dying moments of the game. The Belgian required medical attention before returning to the battlefield with scrumcap-like headwear.
It is often said that despite Fellaini’s sub-par talent, he has the physical capabilities to upset any defence in the world. That has worked both for and against United over the past few seasons. Moyes was determined to use the Belgian as a screen in front of United’s back four despite the player’s lack of tactical discipline, while Fellaini’s clumsy nature often hindered United’s flaccid defending more than it helped.
Last season, Fellaini was brought on as a substitute against Everton with the goal of seeing out a 1-0 victory. The Belgian stuck out a big, clumsy toe, fouling Idrissa Gueye inside the box to gift Everton a penalty and an equaliser.
Fellaini appears to symbolise a cosmic force of destructive energy, packaged into a tight box with his manager holding the keys. In one sense a secret weapon, that if not deployed correctly all too often backfires.
This season, however, Mourinho has been opening his Fellaini box in all the right places. The player came on for the last 15 minutes in Premier League games against West Ham United, Swansea City and Leicester City. United scored six goals in a total of 45 minutes that Fellaini spent on the pitch. While he neither assisted nor scored, the positive impact Fellaini made is undeniable.
The Belgian’s influence was greater still in United’s past two matches. Against FC Basel, on the opening night of the Champions League, Fellaini replaced the injured Pogba early in the game. Less than 14 minutes later and the substitute opened the scoring with a towering header from Ashley Young’s cross. United ran out 3-0 winners and Fellaini was awarded the man of the match.
Then, in Sunday’s game against Everton, United faced perhaps the toughest test in the league so far without Pogba. Fellaini was included ahead of Herrera and scored an impressive 8.1 on WhoScored’s rating system, bettered only by Romelu Lukaku who scored and assisted in the game.
History suggests that Fellaini will become the scapegoat once again when failure comes knocking at the door. Until then, Mourinho is using Fellaini’s unique qualities for the benefit of the club.