Marouane Fellaini: He’s better than you think
It was a titanic tussle between England’s reigning champions and the side many believe will be prise their crown away come next spring. Match of the Day 2 was moved back a day, as was the Guardian’s celebrated podcast Football Weekly. However, it was not to be a Monday night that would shape the season as the Red Devils‘ famous win in Newcastle in 1996 or a Vincent Kompany inspired 1-0 win, which propelled Manchester City to the league title. We didn’t need Monday night’s stalemate to tell us that Manchester United have been sorely lacking in the midfield department for a number of years now (indeed so bad was the game that we didn’t need it to take place at all!). While it would be safe to say that the majority of fans are on the side of adding creativity and invention as opposed to something a little more abrasive.
If the very public and fruitless pursuit of Cesc Fabregas has united (no pun intended) the Old Trafford faithful, they are more divided on the subject of a more attainable and realistic player – Marouane Fellaini.
There appears to be a certain snobbery in the eyes of some towards the Belgian international. He is not blessed the twinkle-toed feet of a ballerina and nor has he been steeped in the Barcelona/Ajax school but to dismiss the tall and imposing title winner with Standard Liège would be to be mistakenly dismissive of the considerable talent he possesses. In many ways, Fellaini seems not to quite fit. He stands out with an afro that endears him especially to those who believe that modern day footballers are sans character and fun and stands tall above most of his opponents.
Don’t be lured in by the image of a fun figure. He thinks a lot about his game and in a more profound manner than simply glancing at his statistics. Due to his immense stature and goalscoring ability, allied to Everton being somewhat lacking in the final third, he had his most productive season last year having been thrust forward into a more advanced role. His performance on the opening day against his possible future employers is one of the best individual and dominant displays in the league in recent memory. David Moyes did the right thing for Everton, in order to make the side punch above their weight yet again. It would be the final time he would repeat the trick but it wasn’t necessarily the best course of action for Fellaini’s long-term development as a player.
Many would reject that, as well as the argument that Fellaini is best suited to a return to the deeper role where he made his name. He has made no secret of this himself and as I alluded to earlier, it would have been tempting for him to be sucked in by his headline-grabbing exploits. Everton’s need for a significant signing in the window in 2008 notwithstanding, it was my firm belief at the time he nevertheless warranted the £15m+ paid for him on the basis of his performances and potential as a central midfielder. During his time at Everton, Moyes has gained an intimate understanding of Maro’s strengths and weaknesses. Even he seems to see Fellaini as a fallback option but there was never any shame in Manchester United aiming high ; it was the manner in which the club went about it.
Should the deal be done before the end of the window, Moyes will again have the opportunity to mould Fellaini around the needs of the team and therein lies the key as to why Fellaini should be rated higher than he is in some quarters. He is talented and flexible enough to adapt to different circumstances. In an era where midfield play sadly seems to be becoming much more specialised (Arrigo Sacchi has been known to express similar regret at this trend) and compartmentalised, it’s a huge asset. It is true that Fellaini sometimes can look lost and uneasy when surrounded by a plethora of fast and skilful players when in a Belgium shirt. It is also true that Marc Wilmots is not entirely sold on Fellaini and that Maro also polarises opinion in his homeland. However, he retains the ability to form a formidable midfield barrier with the imperious Axel Witsel (whom he will not and should not displace) and in a tight international game, his knack for scoring goals can be a godsend. Furthermore, Wilmots is willing to accommodate Maro’s wishes in only considering him in his preferred slot.
Manchester United have not gone down the route first trod by Arsenal and now by Chelsea in filling the squad with magicians but they retain a capacity to entertain, be successful but with a know-how that ensures they do not get bossed around, at least domestically. Fellaini fits perfectly into this ethos and can bring goals from a deeper position, which will give opposition defences something else to worry about other than Moyes’ quartet of strikers. He would have to improve his positional discipline – or rather reprise his natural role – but in Michael Carrick, he would have the ideal operator alongside him. The experienced Carrick is a model of consistency, reading of the game and exuding calm in the highly charged Premier League.
There is a coherent argument to be made that he is not the magic solution to help Manchester United bridge the gap to the likes of Borussia Dortmund and FC Bayern (though Juventus would be a start) but he is a top class midfielder who, if understood properly, could enhance many elite teams in Europe and hopefully Belgium in the remainder of this qualifying campaign and beyond.
On the other Belgians
Having gone on at much more length than intended about Fellaini, we shall just briefly touch upon Kevin De Bruyne and Romelu Lukaku. On KDB, few have flown his flag more than this website but in truth his performances should speak for themselves. It was a welcome show of faith by Jose Mourinho to start the ex-Racing Genk man and while the game was not set up for attacking players to shine, his ability to pick out a searching cross field pass was evident, as regular watchers of les Diables Rouges are only too well aware. Lukaku not being handed the striking role was disappointing because from an outsider’s perspective, he has done everything that could be asked of him on the pitch as well as coming to terms with being so prominent at such a young age, though I would add I was amazed how many people were unaware of Andre Schürrle’s ability to play as a frontman.