Marouane Fellaini’s struggle to impress at Old Trafford

Picture: Erik Drost

Picture: Erik Drost

There was a air of inevitability when Marouane Fellaini finally arrived at Carrington on the last day of August. The Red Devils’ summer transfer activity, or lack thereof, had been the subject of much media scrutiny. Manchester United’s new chief executive Ed Woodward had been tasked with finding a marquee signing for the incoming David Moyes and the duo had hit brick walls up until that point – Thiago opted to join his former manager Pep Guardiola at Bayern , Cesc Fabregas chose to stay put at Barcelona, while the attempted capture of Athletic Bilbao’s Ander Herrara also ended in failure and mockery.

Following these transfer travails, United eventually settled on signing the Belgian international as the man to bolster their ailing midfield for the sum of approximately £27.5m, despite a clause in the 25-year old’s contract expiring two weeks earlier letting him leave for £4m less. Moyes had of course brought Fellaini to England in 2008, spotting him at Standard Liege and despite the hefty outlay, he proved to be one of the Scot’s most astute buys during his time at Goodison Park due to his versatility in midfield, either as a midfield barrier or as a aerial nuisance behind the striker. United found out just how much Fellaini can influence a game in an advanced role, where he was Man of the Match in Everton’s win over the Red Devils on the opening day of the 2012/13 season. Fellaini went on to have his most productive year in England thus the big move was always on the cards. Yet United took their time to bring him into the fold.

Fellaini at Old Trafford with Everton in 2009, before signing for Manchester United. Picture: Gordon Flood

Fellaini at Old Trafford with Everton in 2009, before signing for Manchester United. Picture: Gordon Flood

Many United fans assumed that the linkup between player and former coach would undoubtedly reap rewards, due to their understanding with one another, but many were left feeling unimpressed that Fellaini alone was the glamour purchase of the window (and United’s fourth biggest transfer overall, behind Dimitar Berbatov, Rio Ferdinand and Juan Sebastian Veron). United fans, quite rightly with the figure reported, expect someone excellent but to be that disgruntled at a signing before someone has played a game for the club is a tad unfair, especially if he is the by-product of the club’s misgivings.

Does Fellaini really offer the mobility in midfield which United really seek however? It’s an issue which has plagued many managers, trying to work out where Fellaini’s best role lies. Marc Wilmots and his national team predecessors have pondered whether to place him in the midfield trio if it unbalances the rest of the midfield too much. Only in recent international games has he struck a chord with those around him alongside former Standard teammates Axel Witsel and Steven Defour, after previously sticking out like a sore thumb? Even Moyes struggled to work out where best to use the 6ft 5 Belgian for many seasons at Everton, flip-flopping between using Fellaini as a defensive, box-to-box or attacking midfielder. As history shows us, Fellaini just isn’t the player to slot in straight away – he needs time to find his feet and gain an understanding with those around him.

In his early appearances for United, Fellaini has very much been on the periphery, though he isn’t exactly the only person guilty of that so far this season. Moyes left him out of the match against Fulham, favouring Phil Jones and Tom Cleverley in the central midfield, in which United quickly built up a 3-0 lead. Fellaini was brought on at half-time, due to a trio of injuries, and United’s fluency diminished with him in the side, with the Belgian failing to impress those who watched.

The match against Real Sociedad in the Champions League represented a perfect opportunity for Fellaini to stake his claim in the United midfield, but instead, his persistent fouling in San Sebastian saw him face the ignominy of being sent off. Much like his arrival at Old Trafford, this too was inevitable given the run of play.

In truth, Fellaini’s performance in the first half was fairly good, albeit unspectacular, before his aggressive play got the better of him. It’s an issue which has dogged the ex-Standard player for some time, with his stature and penchant for sharp elbows inviting criticism and cards in equal measure. It’s clear that United bought him for this plus his aerial ability however – last season Fellaini won more aerial duels than the rest of United’s midfielders combined. But so far, Fellaini has had little chance to demonstrate this.

United fans shouldn’t be so hasty in writing Fellaini off just yet, for failing to slot straight into the side. He’s struggling to find his identity, as is Moyes, though United’s win against Arsenal could ignite things. Given time, as he got at Everton, Fellaini should prove to become a valuable asset, especially with the metronome Michael Carrick alongside him. However, the England international’s achilles injury will see him miss at least four weeks out. This should ideally be the perfect time for Fellaini to show fans just why the club parted with so much money for him, but you’d have to feel his transition would have been made easily alongside Carrick than without him.

In the long-run, he’ll have to oust Phil Jones, who put in an impressive performance in the enforcer role against Arsenal, and should surely be given a starting berth more regularly in midfield. While he only made a cameo this weekend against Arsenal, Fellaini has to hit the ground running soon, or face further staunch criticism from his own support.

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