Marouane Fellaini. Much maligned. Has a dreadful first touch. Slows the game down too much. Commits too many needless fouls. Doesn’t score enough goals. All things that you will be lead to believe if you were to take one of the many online Manchester United related forums, websites and blogs as gospel. Yet he is the man who Louis van Gaal must build his team around if United are to finish in the top four this season. With Fellaini in the team in an attacking role, defence is able to turn quickly into attack by playing longer balls up to him.
Clearing their lines, so to speak. Opponents seem to run scared of his physicality, especially when he is facing away from goal trying to control a high pass in order to bring a teammate into play. When Fellaini is on the pitch, United seem to be able to get the ball into the attacking third quicker than is the case when he is not playing. The current crop of defenders, namely Jonny Evans and Phil Jones, take an age to decide what the best pass option should be when he doesn’t play. When he does appear in the first team jersey, trying to get him involved from fifty yards away is always a good possibility for them.
The Barclays Premier League is all about strength and power. A team of 10 Yaya Touré’s, for example, would beat a team of 10 David Silva’s. Or Lionel Messi’s. Skill can only take you so far in football. Every team at every level must play to their strengths. As has been evident on numerous occasions this season, long balls into attacking areas for the physical Belgian has been an efficient way of creating chances and putting opposition goalkeepers under pressure. Fellaini is the essence of strength, so it makes sense that bringing him into play high up the pitch will mean that you are more likely to power your way through to creating more chances.
Pace hasn’t done much for United this season, so power is the only real alternative. When the ball hits him from range inside the opponent’s penalty area, the ball can drop anywhere. He may not have had any official assists so far this season, but no one can dispute the number of goals he has played a helping hand in, just because of his bodily presence. You just have to look at his own strikes at West Bromwich Albion and Preston North End too. In a recent press conference, Louis van Gaal was quoted as saying that Fellaini was his fifth striker.
With Wayne Rooney playing in a deeper role, Robin van Persie potentially injured for a month, Radamel Falcao flattering to deceive and James Wilson seemingly being more effective from the bench, there is absolutely no reason why Fellaini should not play as a lone number one striker. Playing him in a deep role he is wasted. Daley Blind could do a similar job in such positions. Using Fellaini as a striker doesn’t mean that when defending set pieces he should stay up front to lead any counter attacks. Far from it. United still need him to help clear their lines with any tricky pieces of aerial threat from rivals.
What having him lead the line does mean, is that chances can be created by playing long balls up field to him. If the ball bounces off his shin or chest to another red shirt who is able to lash the ball into the net, then so be it. Football doesn’t have to be complicated. A big target man and hungry teammates buzzing around nearby waiting to seize on any opportunities inside the penalty area is all that is needed. There can be no questioning Fellaini’s attitude since joining the club. He signed under David Moyes, yet was totally utilised incorrectly.
Not once did he publicly moan about the way things were going, despite the occasional murmurings of discontent from the usually faithful Old Trafford crowd. Ever since he signed for £4 million more than United could have got him for had they acted a few weeks sooner, he was never going to be the most popular player, à la Eric Cantona. But with the much talked about riches and prestige of the top four at stake, if he is played to his attacking and physical strengths, Marouane Fellaini may become just as important as Cantona ever was in the coming weeks and months.
This article was researched and written by Adam Hern. You can follow him on Twitter.