As we now head into the next international break in another excellent position, level on points with leaders Manchester City, there is plenty of time for reflection on what aspects of the season are working well and what areas we can ameliorate. Amongst the most pleasing and impressive reasons for positivity is the form of the Belgian maestro Marouane Fellaini. Fellaini has often been divisive amongst the United fan base, like marmite, it is often a case of a love/hate feeling but his excellent performances in Paul Pogba’s absence have ensured that we have continued to blow teams away. Fellaini doesn’t offer the exceptional range of passing and all round game that Pogba does, but his spirit and desire are top class and his physicality as well as presence in the area have already paid handsome dividends. As Jose often points out Marouane’s work ethic and discipline are outstanding, he can rely upon him to step in and apply maximum effort to his role. Although his best position may well be at Number 10, where he can use his sublime chest control to its fullest potential, Fellaini has shown his aptitude in a more reserved role playing in the midfield two with Nemanja Matic. The physicality which he brings in partnership with the equally robust Matic gives our midfield an extremely strong base and allows our full backs, Antonio Valencia and Ashley Young to break forward and provide the width necessary to break down the sternest defences. Young, in particular, is enjoying something of a renaissance at left back. The crossing ability and trickery he lends to the role in particular good news for Fellaini who has benefitted from scoring 36% of his United PL goals from Young crosses.
Fellaini, it has to be said, has come a long way from the boos and jeers which he received not so long ago. It was only last term that a catastrophic intervention from the substitutes’ bench against Everton at Goodison had many fans calling for his head. Fellaini, in his over exuberance to assist his team mates contrived to concede a last gasp penalty which robbed us of a vital three points. Some portions of the Old Trafford faithful took exception to such foolishness, and saw fit to vent their frustrations towards the big Belgian. He became a scapegoat for the feelings of desperation and unhappiness which had seen us not only plummet out of any potential title challenge, but also such a yawning chasm between our placing and top four, a perilous standing which proved to be unassailable that season. Mourinho, as the exceptional manager that he is, took on all who criticised his loyal lieutenant and maintained that Fellaini was integral for the vision he had for his team and squad. Fellaini went on to have important contributions in vital matches, his goals in the semi finals of our winning cup runs in the League Cup and Europa League, standout moments showing that his mercurial talents offered an extra dimension which other squad members cannot provide. Steven Gerrard talked about these special skills recently when he said:
“Sometimes you can try all the class and all the nice bits, but sometimes you need to go ugly. You need to go direct. You need to have a Plan B. He’s certainly United’s Plan B and he’s very effective.”
It is worth remembering that in previous seasons, Fellaini has proven that in the big games, he often has a knack of getting in the right positions at the right times to make essential interventions. In our winning FA Cup run in 2016, when Rooney set off on his jinking run it was Fellaini who created havoc at the back post and knocked it down for Mata to finish with his wonderful chest. A lot of Fellaini’s goals have been scored on the end of fabulous crosses, particularly the in swinging cross which curls to the back post, sumptuous deliveries which have begged the Belgian giant to supply the finishing touch. He has proven lethal on many occasions when the ball is right, as in particular he shows great awareness and thought to target the full back, where his power and presence are so incredibly devastating. There have often been very derogatory words and polls that Fellaini has been involved in whilst at United, in April 2014 for example, he was named as one of the “10 Worst Buys of the Premier League Season” by the Daily Telegraph. However, it has always been the unflinching way that he follows the manager’s instructions which has allowed Fellaini to continue to be utilised. He said in an interview to Bleacher Report during the 2015-16 season:
“When the manager asks me to play somewhere, I play there. But my best position is midfield.”
However, Fellaini’s temperament and desire to succeed has often landed him in hot water on the field. Not only was there the flashpoint with Robert Huth in the 2015-16 season, but one cannot help but remember how he got himself sent off last season in the stalemate at the Etihad. However, not every footballer is perfect and Fellaini’s imperfections come from his tenacity and determination, key ingredients in any midfielder’s locker. No opposing player is given an easy ride by Fellaini; he makes his presence felt and inspires fear and trepidation of his hard, biting tackles. Fellaini has also proven himself at international level, managing over 70 caps for his nation, and all of this during a time when Belgium is revered for their golden generation. Fellaini, as one might already imagine, is extremely patriotic, vowing that should Belgium win the World Cup, he will cut his entire glorious mane of hair off. His goal scoring record for his country is impressive, scoring 16 goals in 76 games, which shows how deadly he is when given the opportunity to shine in a more advanced role. However, despite the archetypal Fellaini celebration, involving two thumbs pointed to his surname written on the back of his jersey, he is very selfless in ensuring that he best serves whichever role the manager sees fit for him, rather than having an agenda where he tries to engineer opportunities in a more favoured position.
Fellaini, at 29, which is often thought to be the prime of many footballers, has even garnered praise from the highest of sources, in Manchester United’s most decorated player, Ryan Giggs who told Sky Sports :
“I’ve worked with him and he’s a great lad to train because he does exactly what you want, and hasn’t let the fans bother him because he’s always had the support of the players and the coaches. He is effective, knows his strengths and limitations, and he’s somebody who Jose has put a lot of faith in and he has repaid that with some important goals.”
When someone of Ryan Giggs’ stature backs you, you know you’ve got some important supporters and his sentiments pertaining to Fellaini’s outstanding character remind me of Roy Keane’s exhortation that whilst talent is important, a character that is willing to work and be trusted by compatriots is absolutely vital when it comes to attaining some of the bigger trophies. Fellaini has all the best facets in this area, a sheer iron cast will to do his best and never let his team mates or the fans down. Even when he makes a gaffe, you know that he does it with the best of intentions, and there will never be a match where you can accuse Fellaini of being a ghost or a passenger, like some of his more esteemed peers.
During the summer, Fellaini was rumoured to be off to another club and was linked with rumours to Italy before a potential move to Galatasaray was postulated. To the glee of Fellaini’s protractors and dismay of his detractors, Jose dismissed selling Fellaini saying that Galatasaray would be more likely to secure him than Marouane. Yet again, the faith and loyalty Jose showed towards Fellaini has certainly seemed to inspire him to greater heights, the mutual respect and trust which has so far reaped rich yield this season. In truth, even those who wanted Fellaini’s sale realised that we were desperately short in the engine room of the team in our squad. Carrick’s performances are not of the same glorious standard as yesteryear, McTominay is relatively untried and with the sales of Schneiderlin and Schweinsteiger, there is a lack of manpower in that area. This was even further highlighted by Andreas Pereira’s decision to go on another loan spell in La Liga which has further exacerbated our dearth in the heart of midfield. Fellaini’s form in plugging the gap has been such that Player of the Season Ander Herrera can’t get a look in, testament to the levels that Fellaini is reaching in games. David Moyes in particular looks almost prophetic when he said of Fellaini:
“For me, Marouane Fellaini has been one of the best midfielders in the Premier League over the last few seasons. If he continues to improve at United, we’ll have a really good player on our hands.”
His performance against Crystal Palace this weekend was simply masterful, not only did he contribute with two well taken goals but he also performed well in a defensive aspect, typified in the way that he harried a Palace player in the second half with the game already won. Fellaini’s positional sense, knowing when and how to channel his run came spectacularly to the fore. His first strike, he anticipated where Young’s wonderful cross would arrive and provided the sheer grit and determination to finish with aplomb. For a big man, Fellaini in this respect shows subtlety and cunning in knowing how to arrive unnoticed, he drifts in between or behind defenders like a wraith and then strikes like a viper. Fellaini is exemplifying the clinical nature of United so far this season; he has now scored three goals from four shots in the Premier League which shows that he has been ruthless when given the opportunity to bomb forward. An albatross around United necks is that it has now been four and a half years since a United player last scored a hat trick- that was Robin Van Persie against Aston Villa at the back end of our 20th Premier League title achievement. At one point, the ball bounced down invitingly in the penalty area and it appeared that much derided Fellaini would break the unwanted hoodoo. However, that particular curse will have to wait for another day to be lifted. It says everything though about the feeling of anticipation and havoc which Fellaini causes that he can almost score a hat trick from a defensive midfield position however. Jose Mourinho in particular feels vindicated for his staunch defence of the Belgian, following his glowing Man of The Match performance against Palace telling BBC Sport:
“I always trusted Marouane since day one. I try to give him confidence and show him how useful he is for the team.”
Now buoyed by his fabulous performances there are rumours that Fellaini is demanding a large pay rise in order to extend his tenure at United. The fact that he survives when others do not, in spite of widespread condemnation and vilification makes me think of him as an aspidistra. It’s a particularly apt reference to Fellaini as it was a hardy houseplant that thrives in harsh conditions and shows incredible resilience, growing to impressive and unwieldy sizes. It was in George Orwell’s masterpiece “Keep the Aspidistra Flying” where the protagonist talked ceaselessly of aspidistras and their import, indeed contemplating that the “aspidistra is the tree of life”. Fellaini has proven that he can be an extremely essential part of United’s squad and makeup, which is how he has survived the cull of many more exotic and aesthetic plants that have wilted when deprived of the sunlight and nutrients of good leadership under Moyes and Van Gaal. One thing’s for sure, if this aspidistra keeps flying through the air to deliver final touches in assisting and scoring integral goals he will continue to be as Gordon Comstock, the titular character in the Orwell novel, said “a dashed important subject”.