One of the most enigmatic figures at Manchester United, and in world football, is Marouane Fellaini. Fellaini divides the opinion of the football world because of his apparent inability to produce a reputable performance in midfield for Manchester United. However, he continues to score key goals, earn the faith of the Manchester United managers, and find himself in United’s setup, ousting the likes of Morgan Schneiderlin and Bastian Schweinsteiger from the first team.
Trying to comprehend Fellaini’s tenure at Manchester United is one of the most difficult aspects of being a United fan- some believe he embodies everything wrong with David Moyes’ tenure at United, failing to produce the midfield performances expected of a Red Devil, but others believe he has earned his stripes on many occasions with passionate, dedicated performances and key goals. Contrary to popular belief, Marouane Fellaini has not produced a good performance this season against a midfield unit even remotely comparable to that of his midfield partners.
Opening holes, ceding possession, fouls in key areas, and seemingly not fitting in to United’s midfield, Fellaini has been branded as a scapegoat and a bad midfielder at United. Truthfully, scapegoating him comes with some merit- he is almost completely responsible for United’s occasional lack of fluidity, a problem that only occurs when the Belgian is on the pitch. However, Fellaini is not a bad midfielder- quite the contrary, in fact- he is a very effective footballer. While those statements may seem contradictory at first, the sentence perfectly explains Marouane Fellaini’s dilemma- he hinders United’s attacking football as a midfielder, despite being a very, very good footballer. This statement dispels the myths behind both quintessential arguments about Fellaini.
First of all, Fellaini is a very effective defensive footballer, because of his ability to press the ball. Deployed in front of a deep-lying playmaker, Fellaini is able to perfectly protect this player, pressing the space, harassing opponents, and slowing down the opposition by committing fouls. Players avoid running at the Belgian with the ball at their feet because of the extreme effectiveness of this tactical nuance- the best way to get past Marouane Fellaini is to run at him as a ball is played into space, exposing his inability to intercept passes and forcing him to challenge. However, in front of a deep-lying playmaker intercepts the ball from channels anyways.
Moving forward, Fellaini’s impact isn’t based on route-one football. Playing in a 4-3-3 system, Fellaini’s ability to lose markers and chest the ball down is the absolute best format of goalkeeper distribution on this planet- there isn’t one footballer in the world who can provide better openings for a goalkeeper. This transition was an influential component of Louis van Gaal’s 4-3-3 system that tore Tottenham, Manchester City, and Liverpool apart in 2015- with Fellaini on the ball, United used Ander Herrera to draw opposition midfielders out of position, and then de Gea distributed the ball to Fellaini, effectively covering 60 yards of the pitch in one move. Fellaini’s next move would be the same every time- chest the ball down, and find Michael Carrick. Once Carrick was on the ball, United had disorganized the opposition, central defenders were drawn into midfield to mark Fellaini, and the Belgian caught his defender tracking back.
Tactically, Fellaini could be successful at a club that plays counter-attacking football, in the mould of Atletico Madrid, where he could roam in front of two banks of four, overload key areas with physicality, slow down the game with fouls (which is Atletico’s style, as opposed to United), and cover an immense distance on the pitch. The Belgian has incredible personal fitness, dedication, and passion, which likely explains why many United managers have valued him, especially considering Jose Mourinho’s repeated declaration of the lack of passion in certain players at United.
However, there is a key unexpected difference between van Gaal’s side and Jose Mourinho’s side, and that difference is a consequence of the fact that Mourinho’s men are much better on the ball. The creative outlets in what I believe to be United’s best post-Ferguson setup to date were Juan Mata and Ashley Young, both players who were instructed to pick up passes on the run, creating overloads in key areas. Now, United’s system is based purely on using creative attacking movement and passing to break down a side, and in this style of football, Fellaini becomes a positional liability, a fluidity contaminant, and subsequently, United is afforded less space and time on the pitch. The fact Jose Mourinho has failed to realize that Fellaini is not suited to this system is beyond me, especially considering how brilliant he has been in his first season at United.
There is also the obvious- Fellaini is an excellent substitute to help cause chaos when chasing a game, and he has been used to United’s benefit for this exact purpose on many occasions. However, Fellaini would want to start games in an ideal world, and he should not be doing that at United. Keeping a player solely to play him off the bench would be a ridiculous plan, which is why I still believe that Fellaini should leave United.
However, for the right team, Fellaini would have been a solid signing for the £27.5 million David Moyes dished out for him in 2013- the Scot knew he was purchasing a player with the ability to succeed, but he failed to recognize Fellaini’s lack of tactical adaptability, a quality that has been vital for successful players at United in recent years. The Belgian scores key goals plays good matches and gives everything he can for United, and he is not at fault for being tasked with performing roles of which he is not capable. Fellaini shouldn’t be considered a scapegoat, a bad player, or a flop because he’s merely a player who did not fit in- and considering the love most managers have for him, that is a much more rational explanation for his confusing performances.