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MOTM: Young and Lukaku impress, but Fellaini steals the spotlight

After Manchester United’s frustrating draw against Stoke City, Jose Mourinho moaned the absence of one specific player. That man was Marouane Fellaini. A surprise to most football supporters, but not to those who have followed Mourinho’s reign at United. The Portuguese has done little to hide his admiration for his Belgium midfielder, and today the afroed giant showed why.

When Paul Pogba came off with an injury United supporters feared the worst and Fellaini’s presence did little to ease those fears. However, after a few unproductive minutes of settling in Fellaini did exactly what Mourinho so often praises him for; change the game. With Ashley Young becoming isolated on the left, a quick shimmy was followed up by a superb cross right onto the head of the United substitute. Just like that, 1-0.

Up to that point, United had created a fair amount of chances but struggled to put them away. Most notable were two sitters that Henrikh Mkhitaryan somehow managed to miss. Mourinho had clearly noticed that Basel had shorter centre-backs and wanted United to get crosses into the box. While this did happen in the first half, they really began to pour it on after the break. A move highlighted by Daley Blind’s cross to Romelu Lukaku.

The cross itself was good, but what made it dangerous was the fact that Chris Smalling, Fellaini and Lukaku were all in the same area. Ultimately, it was Lukaku who got his head on it and converted the all-important second goal. As the game progressed, Basel would go close if not for a great save by David de Gea. But the game was never really in doubt from this point forward.

Late in the game, with Basel pushing forward, Fellaini made a great run into the right channel. After collecting the ball, he played in a deflected cross which ultimately found itself to Marcus Rashford. Always in the right place at the right time, the full England international didn’t miss. 3-0 United.

On a night when United dominated without being all that impressive, three players truly stood out as possible Man of the Match candidates.

Marouane Fellaini

Much of his attacking contribution was noted in the match summary, however, Fellaini provided a great deal more than just a goal. His presence in the box was important and often put pressure on Basel center-backs when choosing who to mark on crosses. He did well to drop back and defend on the edge of the box when necessary and provided a valuable outlet when the Swiss champions began pressing to get back into the game.

His distribution was poor at times and at that is not likely to improve at this point, but that doesn’t mean he can’t offer a great deal to the squad. Playing on the right side of a two-man midfield, he did well to cover for Mata when United did play the ball directly. Say what you will, but Fellaini came on and did a job. What more could you ask?

Ashley Young

Few players have suffered more in the post-Sir Alex Ferguson era than Ashley Young. Some of his issues were a result of age and declining physical ability, but much of it has been tactical. With three different managers in five seasons, Young has been moved all over the field. Right wing, left wing, right back, left back and even striker. However, today Ashley Young reminded United fans of how good he can be.

His crossing is a vast improvement over what most players in the team can bring and proved to be a valuable outlet on the right. He defended well and forced Basel’s winger to hesitate to get too far forward. On the negative, his positioning was wanting at times and he got caught out once or twice. Fortunately, nothing came of it. In the end, his cross was beautiful and it is the kind of ball United need to play more consistently to break down the lesser opposition.

Romelu Lukaku

Some criticised Lukaku’s performance against Stoke City, highlighting his miss in the second half as particularly egregious. What often goes unnoticed with the Belgium, is all the work he does without the ball. Against Basel, his hold up play was exceptional. When necessary, he would drop deep and provide valuable link up play in the transition from defence to attack. When he wasn’t dropping deep, he was making intelligent runs into the channel.

An important run that Juan Mata on the right is never going to be able to make. As a result, United could stretch Basel and provide an important threat. Most importantly though, was he was a nightmare to deal with in the air. Mourinho had clearly noticed that Basel had shorter centre-backs and wanted United to get crosses into the box. While this did happen in the first half, they really began to pour it on in the second. Lukaku were at the centre of this

Conclusion

With all three nominees providing important contributions but none of them exceptionally dominating, I have to give the MOTM nod to the one who changed the game. Marouane Fellaini came on and did exactly what Mourinho wanted and gave the team what they needed in the absence of Paul Pogba. He is not the flashiest player and he never will be, but his dominance in the air was of immense value against a Basel team who wanted to keep the ball on the ground. He made impressive runs going forward that ultimately yielded two goals. Congratulations to Marouane Fellaini, my Man of the Match.

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