There is no degree of prolixity in an assertion that this has not been a good year for Marouane Fellaini. The Belgian’s disastrous first season with Manchester United ended with the Reds trophyless, managerless and the £27.5 million signing roundly criticised for a series of hugely disappointing performances. To cap a miserable 12 months, Fellaini’s Belgium lost to Argentina in the World Cup quarter-final, ending the Red Devils’ hopes after a tournament where high expectations went largely unmet.
The outlook could yet degrade for the 26-year-old former Evertonian, who holds no guarantee that he will start the new season at United – let alone be given the opportunity to justify that hugely inflated fee. Indeed, with Louis van Gaal reportedly unimpressed, and the Belgian certain to miss the Reds’ pre-season tour of the United States, the odds are that he will begin the new campaign squarely on the back foot. If at Old Trafford at all.
Little wonder the midfielder has resorted to desperate measures – restyling his famous Afro-hair.
Over in the Dutch camp, Fellaini’s new manager is dealing with the fallout from Netherlands World Cup semi-final disappointment. Defeat may have come in a penalty shoot-out against Argentina, but progress to the latter stages was much beyond expectations. Louis van Gaal’s youthful outfit will return home after the weekend’s third/fourth place play-off having readjusted confidence in the national side from a public that had little.
If there is an overwhelming facet of van Gaal’s management that the World Cup has brought to the fore it is the Dutchman’s new-found pragmatism. So long dogmatic about the game van Gaal believes should always be beautiful, the veteran coach devised a strategy for his side based largely on counter-attack, while maintaining security with five defenders. It is just not Dutch, claims the local media; van Gaal is happy to glory in proving his opponents wrong.
Yet, reaction to the 62-year-old’s conversion to expediency should say as much about the veteran’s past as it does his future. The contrast with van Gaal’s Ajax, Barcelona and Bayern Munich teams is so significant that it is impossible not to conclude that the coach simply made the best of what he had available in Brazil. He will have greater riches still at Old Trafford. Whether Fellaini is a diamond uncut remains a serious doubt.
After all Fellaini pointedly refused to clarify his future despite questioning through the World Cup campaign. Little wonder – the Brussels-born midfielder was reportedly described by van Gaal as not “a United type of player” during the summer. Shorn locks and an obfuscated commitment will do little to change that opinion.
Indeed, it was a mixed tournament for the player, who scored against Algeria, but failed to impress in a Belgian side that under-utilised the many talents available. The back-to-basics tactical approach brought just six goals in Belgium’s five games – and very little excitement either. Moreover, Fellaini did little to suggest that he has the qualities to make United’s number eight position his own in van Gaal’s probable three-man midfield.
It surprised few that Fellaini’s goal came with his head, nor that Belgium largely sought to play a direct game with the United man available as a very obvious target.
Yet, Fellaini’s team-mates were quick to echo coach Marc Wilmot’s pre-tournament assertion that the player excels in an attacking midfield role. Jan Vertonghen, the Tottenham Hotspur defender, said Fellaini was “very important” to the side and that he does not know if United can get the best out of the player.
“I know there has been a lot of pressure on him from the fans in England, but in Belgium he always does well and scores goals,” said the Spurs player.
“I’m very pleased for him and I gave him a little hug after the [Algeria] game because I know that goal meant a lot to him. Marouane is a very cool guy. We know how to use him.”
In a similar vein Belgium’s captain Vincent Kompany said that Fellaini “is a terrific player” and that United must grant the midfielder “a couple of seasons” before judgement is passed.
For his part Fellaini has offered little in the way of renewed confidence this summer, blaming injury for a poor campaign and offering no guarantees that he will turn his United career around. In truth there are few advocates left for a man who looks very much an expensive error.
“Everybody knows my club season was one to forget, but I’m the same Marouane,” he said.
“United signed me one year ago. There have been some positives and some negatives, like the bad injury I picked up. Also, our team didn’t quite click into place. Now we have a new manager, we’ll see what happens next season. I still feel good at United.”
Logic, however, holds less cause for Fellaini to remain optimistic. While van Gaal’s pragmatic Dutch midfield has relied on Wesley Sneijer to add a modicum of creativity, it is Nigel de Jong and Georginio Wijnaldum that have proffered Netherlands a genuine base. Fellaini fits into none of those roles.
van Gaal will surely build his central midfield around new acquisition Ander Herrara, in an offensive role, together with a box-to-box player – Arturo Vidal is certainly wanted by United’s hierarchy – and a holding player. Michael Carrick may be offered another shot at proving his worth, although the Englishman’s lack of pace and dynamism counts against him. Anderson and Fellaini, and to some extent Darren Fletcher, fit even less into the van Gaal template.
Neither is the Dutchman prone to seek the obvious ‘plan B’ deployed successfully at Everton and with Belgium this summer. Patience, whether van Gaal builds a side to retain possession and dominate games, or one that excels on the break, is still the manager’s principled watchword.
United may even seek to recoup some of the significant investment – certainly if the new coach has little faith in the player’s ability to add value. Fellaini will only be one year older, one season more damaged if he cannot turn it around.
In the meantime Fellaini takes a break after Belgium’s progress to the World Cup quarter final. Most of his team-mates will enjoy pre-season in the United States, seeking to hit the ground running in the post David Moyes era.