Ageing deadwood and why the Marouane Fellaini contract set a dangerous precedent at Manchester United

Ask any Manchester United supporter where things started going wrong for the club and you will likely get one of three answers: When the Glazers took over, When Ed Woodward was put in charge of running the club or When David Moyes succeeded Sir Alex Ferguson as manager. Believe it or not all three answers are correct as one led to another and to another and thus the decline of everybody’s favourite football club.

Whatever the answer there is another question that is worth asking and that is: If you had to choose one person who epitomises the downfall of United more than any other who would you choose? Surely one name would be more prevalent than any other and that is none other than the towering Belgian known as Marouane Fellaini. Now indulge me if you will as I take you back in time a short while to a point where Manchester United fans were happy and eager to see what the future would bring.

It was Summer of 2018 and United finished second in the league behind a very dominant Manchester City and regardless of the points deficit the fans had something to cheer about, it appeared as though the club was finally on the up again at the hands of one Jose Mourinho. There were other factors in play as well, the World Cup was clearly coming home and more importantly the aforementioned Belgian’s contract was expiring that very Summer and there was interest from a number of clubs.

Manchester United fans were very optimistic and hopeful that finally the man, signed on the last day of the transfer window in Moyes first and only season, would leave the club. Lacking mobility, being one elbow or slide tackle away from causing the team to concede a penalty or to somehow lose the battle for a header in his own box to a man a foot shorter than him, many fans wanted him gone. He was after all everything wrong with the club at that time.

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When he was brought on you could hear the audible sighs from the crowd as he was subbed on for one of two reasons, to defend a 0-0 draw or 1-0 lead against lower opposition the team should have brushed aside with ease, or to go up front and have the ball lumped up to him in the hope that he would connect and score the winning goal. And sometimes he did, which endeared him to a lot of fans who saw him as a useful squad option.

However, the prospect of him leaving and the club bringing in someone else was simply too good a plan to resist. Fast forward to June 29th and the news came that Fellaini had been handed a two-year contract. Fans were dismayed and confused, as he was 30 years old and historically speaking the club had only renewed the contracts of players 30 and over for one year with an option the club could take up if they wish.

Ryan Giggs, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Paul Scholes, Gary Neville, Michael Carrick and more, had all signed one-year contracts and their renewals were done on a yearly basis only. So why was this player, who wasn’t fit to lace the boots of the others, somehow seen as good enough to warrant such a renewal? One word, desperation. It’s no secret that Ed Woodward has been more miss than hit at his job when it comes to transfer targets and with his refusal to back Jose Mourinho by much in the summer, he clearly thought to renew Fellaini for two years, or lose him and have to replace him, was the more prudent option.

At the time it was believed to be a dangerous precedent and that brings us to today. Reports have come out in the last few days that Juan Mata has been offered a new contract, a one year contract as per our usual offerings. However, per reports, he wants to have the same contract as Fellaini, a two-year contract to ensure he gets to keep the wage he will pick up for longer.

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I don’t think any fan would blame Mata as what person wouldn’t want assurances of their future and know they will be financially secure for longer than he would be otherwise. And from what is seen Juan Mata is a genuinely nice guy so this can’t be seen as him taking advantage or wanting the money, as other players do. It’s just a man seeing another offered a certain contract and saying to himself, ‘Hey, I should have that one too, I’m a much better player.’

The reason this is a bad thing is due to the fact that Mata is no longer the player he used to be and whilst he is a good squad option it would be much better for another, younger, faster, more in shape player to take that mantle. The club has a player just like that, one who polarises opinion, although that is more to do with him having fun and enjoying life, and that man is Jesse Lingard.

If you look at the player’s side by side and compare statistics for the current season you could argue that there is no difference between the two with their offensive statistics looking very similar, and it is more evident when you look at goals and assists with both players having 2 assists and Lingard scoring four compared to Mata’s two. Lingard has played just over 300 minutes of football more as well.

The problem with statistics, however, is that more often than not they don’t tell the whole story. And the whole story is that Lingard is much more suited to an attacking team who depends on pace and agility, something Mata is no longer suited to. I know what you’re thinking, speed isn’t everything because if it was Usain Bolt would be the number one target for every club in the world. However, by watching games it is evident that Lingard brings a lot more to the team than Mata.

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Now I know what you’re thinking and that is that you didn’t come here to read a Jesse Lingard puff-piece, so you’ll be pleased to know that’s over and that I merely made the comparison to show why offering Mata a two-year contract is unnecessary due to the option they already have at the club. This is why giving Fellaini the two-year contract back in June set a dangerous precedent, because now every player who is over 30 will be wanting the same deal and the club will be stuck with a group of players who can no longer do the job the club needs them to do, and they’ll be stuck paying high wages and be unable to bring anyone in.

Realistically who is going to buy any of the players the club has when their legs are gone and their wage demands will be high enough that other clubs will be unwilling to meet them. Currently, at the club, there are three players, not including Mata, whose contracts are expiring in 2019 and who will be 30 by the start of the 19/20 season: Ashley Young, Ander Herrera and Antonio Valencia.

Of those three Valencia and Young are already over 30 and Herrera will be 30 by the start of next season, although Valencia has a one year option on his contract already meaning if the club activates that option he will be up for renewal at the end of the 2019/20 season. Young and Valencia are both wingers converted to fullbacks whose best days are long behind them and, just like Mata, their legs are gone. Antonio Valencia even admitted that he has to ice his knee every single day due to an injury.

With each game both of them play every United fan can predict the sequence of events that both players will move along: they pick up the ball near the halfway line, they play a one-two, dally with the ball for a few seconds and then whip in a cross that either hits the first man, goes straight to the keeper or goes over everybody and out for a throw-in or goal kick. As the saying goes, ‘The definition of insanity is trying the same thing again and again and expecting different results.’

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It’s fair to say that both players should no longer be at the club and near the first team, they should be squad options at best and I’m sure many fans would much prefer the likes of Timothy Fosu-Mensah and other young players to be the squad options instead. Herrera, on the other hand, is a different kettle of fish and whilst not the best player in the team he does bring a ferociousness that not many others bring, like a pit bull, the dog not the musician.

Looking at him and everything he puts into the team you’d think he was a born and bred Manc as he bleeds United. He is most definitely a fan favourite but he should still be given the one year contract other players of his age were given to ensure that he doesn’t overstay his welcome. They aren’t the only players either, as the club has a few who are advancing in age, such as Alexis Sanchez and Nemanja Matic, the former of whom who is on a very high wage if reports are to be believed. Once their contracts are up will they also be wanting a two-year renewal instead of the usual one-year option?

This is why Fellaini being given what he wanted, a two-year contract instead of one, has set a huge precedent and Manchester United fans shouldn’t be surprised to see their ageing players all being given the same contracts. If that does happen, and it is seemingly likely, then don’t go expecting too many new arrivals until the deadwood is shifted because the wage bill will simply be too high to justify new players on the payroll.

Written by Craig Holland-Greenfield

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