[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.
When José Mourinho waltzed into Old Trafford eyes were quickly cast at the playing squad. Who would be retained; who would be shipped out? There were a few names that immediately stood out as destined for the chop, but after the Community Shield and first couple of Premier League fixtures a number of these unlikely lads have stepped up to prove their worth to the Portuguese manager. Some could become components in a potentially successful season.
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.
At the secret Glazer family money bank, Joel, Bryan and Avram proudly toast inking their latest commercial partnership. Joel strokes his wad as Avram preens, proudly sporting a freshly waxed pony tail. Bryan, known as the ‘fun one’, is busy celebrating United’s latest success by polishing his tractor.
Misery, so the saying goes, loves company. If that’s the case Manchester United fans can take solace that theirs isn’t the only sporting entity being mismanaged by the Glazer family. Stateside, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers NFL franchise is going through a period of turmoil too, after firing the head coach in rather haphazard circumstances. Read More
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.
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.
So there it was at last. No, not David Moyes first win at Old Trafford. Nor, indeed, Marouane Fellaini’s first appearance in a Manchester United jersey, although the Belgian was deployed to good effect as a second half substitute on Saturday. The real talking point in United’s return to competitive action after the international break is reserved for Adnan Januzaj’s competitive debut. Composed, assured in possession, and prodigiously talented, Januzaj made ample claim for a major role in the season ahead as United beat Crystal Palace on Saturday.
The United manager will take much satisfaction from the weekend’s events, although less from the Reds’ actual performance against a limited, but willing Palace side. Indeed, not until referee Jonathan Moss’s borderline decision to award the Reds a penalty, and dismiss the visitors defender Kagisho Dikgacoi for denying a goalscoring opportunity, did Moyes’ side final stamp its authority on the game. After defeat to Liverpool a fortnight ago victory was the minimum demanded by a passive Old Trafford crowd.
Meanwhile, Fellaini, on as a 62nd minute substitute for the largely ineffectual Anderson, enjoyed an unexacting debut. The £27.5 million Belgian midfielder rotated possession well, remained tactically disciplined when required, and even got off one fine long-range effort.
There will be far sterner opponents than Palace’s Mile Jedinak, of course, but at least the new United man remained on the pitch; those famous Fellaini elbows kept close to the midfielder’s chest in an understated display.
More allure lay elsewhere though. It was 50 years to the day since George Best, the waif like winger from Ulster, made his United bow. Best became the finest to grace Old Trafford before or since. And while the future holds no guarantees for the nebulous Belgian Januzaj, the 18-year-old served to remind just how much the current United side is crying out for a little of Best’s sparkle.
After all, Ashley Young’s outrageous dive, for which the 28-year-old was righly cautioned, was only marginally more irritating than the former Aston Villa player’s consistent mediocrity. Upgrade urgently required.
The Belgian kid drew the foul from which Wayne Rooney cracked home United’s second in a performance of real verve, but not before reminding home fans of the vast potential already demonstrated on this summer’s tour. That Januzaj is yet to sign a new contract will also remind Reds of other supremely talented teenagers to have escaped United’s clutches in recent seasons.
Januzaj is impressively keen to receive the ball, possesses good balance and intelligence beyond his years. The goal threat is muted, but as the teenager fills out he should become more potent in multiple forward positions. It is little wonder that many observers believe the kid is the most natural talent to emerge from the Academy in years.
The teenager’s promise lay in stark contrast to United’s laboured performance for much of the piece; possession turned into chances, but so few of them clear cut, while the Reds’ finishing remained sub-optimal bar Rooney’s outstanding set-piece.
These are still early days in the new regime, of course, but as in fixtures against Chelsea and Liverpool a sense of ennui pervades. Moyes’ tactical focus on function over form in central midfield and a traditional ‘width and crosses’ approach to creating chances will surely come undone against more astute opponents.
Moyes was happy enough to declare himself pleased with the performance, although United must certainly level up against Bayer Leverkusen in midweek.
“I’m very happy. I thought there was a lot of good play, in the early part of the first half we were very good,” said Moyes.
“We created a lot of crossing positions and goal-scoring opportunities which we didn’t take. We made it a little bit nervy, so I was delighted when we got the penalty kick before half time.
“We didn’t concede any goals, which is a great thing. At the moment, we’re looking strong defensively and that will be really important in the coming games.”
Meanwhile, compatriot Fellaini slotted alongside Michael Carrick for a half-hour cameo. It was an understated display, perhaps limited by the player’s debut nerves. Yet, the Belgian displayed none of the carelessness in possession that sometimes blighted his displays at Everton. The chest control and half volley just a few moments into his entrance a hint at the player’s genuine goal threat.
“It was a fantastic debut and we won. I was both nervous and excited. I thought I had to play my game and with my quality,” said Fellaini in the aftermath.
“The supporters helped me, it was important for me. We won today so it was good for our confidence ahead of the next game – because the next game is a big game, it is a Champions League game.”
Fellaini will surely start against Leverkusen on Wednesday – a game that Rooney should also make after surprising many by returning to action so soon after suffering a serious facial cut in training. The Scouser was less than his effervescent best, but the quality of pace and dip on the 81st minute free-kick will live long in the memory. That Robin van Persie also scored keeps up the pair’s better than goal-a-game ratio.
But the post match chatter focused on Januzaj, who will challenge both Antonio Valencia and Young for a place in Moyes’ starting side in the months to come. Januzaj’s development is a major bonus for the former Everton manager, whose likely strategy this season is to build a strong defensive base and trust United’s creativity to width.
“I think I did some good things, but it is only my debut so I have to keep doing well on the pitch,” Januzaj told MUTV.
“I appreciate the very good fans, they gave me a bit of power when I came on the pitch. I hoped to get a goal but I tried to do my best for the team and tried to give goals and score goals. Of course, I want more games to play and I hope I will have another chance to play for the first team.”
In that there is a warning of course. Last summer Paul Pogba departed, contract expired, complaining of limited opportunities in the first team.
“The boy’s going to be a good player, he’s 18 years old and he’s a good talent,” assured Moyes post-match. “I would have introduced him earlier if the games had suited. I considered playing him from the start.”
It is a promise fans hope the manager keeps.