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Will Marouane Fellaini finally be accepted as the real deal?

The 2011/12 Premier League season is not one remembered fondly by Manchester United fans. Losing the title by goal difference to cross-town rivals Manchester City on the last day of the season, it simply does not get more painful. Whilst the final day of the season will always be remembered with anguish, in truth United’s title hopes were dashed a few weeks prior to the end of the season against Everton, relinquishing a two-goal lead to draw 4-4.

On that day a tall 24-year-old Belgian caused havoc for the United defence, scoring one goal and having a hand in two others, making a personal dent in United’s title hopes. That player was Marouane Fellaini. Fast forward five years and the Belgian this week produced a man of the match performance for United in the second leg of the Europa League semi-final to carry United’s hopes into the final in Stockholm. Will this performance finally ensure Fellaini will get the respect and recognition he deserves?

Joining United for a not inconsequential £27 million at the start of the 2013/14 season, Fellaini is still seen by many as a reminder of the unsuccessful David Moyes era. ‘Not a Manchester United player’ is a label that has followed Fellaini, but in 2016/17 the Belgian has been quietly gathering momentum in United’s midfield. Heavily rumoured to be leaving United in the last three transfer windows, here are some of the reasons why Jose Mourinho values the big Belgian.

Physicality

Mourinho loves having physical midfielders in his side, think Nemanja Matic at Chelsea and Sami Khedira at Real Madrid. At 194cm (or close to 6”4’) Fellaini often stands head and shoulders above his opposition marker and thus is a significant threat at set pieces and corners. Unsurprisingly, in 2016/17 he has won the most aerial battles within the United squad and has scored close to half his Premier League goals with his head. But there are many tall players in the Premier League who have made their careers in heading a ball, where Fellaini shows his real talent is in his chest control.

This part of the Belgian’s game gives United the ability to recycle possession from deep-lying balls or goal kicks with a wonderful example of this shown on New Year’s Day against Middlesbrough when Paul Pogba scythed a ball from his own half fizzing it into the Belgian’s path at the top of the box where on the half turn he took the ball on his chest and found a United wide player. And he completed this wonderful piece of skill as it was a simple feat, but few players have this ability. Guardian writer Barney Ronay described Fellaini’s upper-body control as; “one of the mini-marvels of the modern game, an adhesive, velvety-soft cradle, like an ancient baseball catcher’s mitt, into which the ball just seems to nestle from any angle.”

Experience

At 29, Fellaini brings critical Premier League, International and Manchester United experience to Jose Mourinho’s squad. It’s hard to believe given the consistent speculation surrounding the Belgian that he will be entering his fifth season in a United shirt next season. Fellaini has also been capped by Belgium over 70 times in the last decade, part of the country’s ‘golden generation’ playing alongside world class talents in Eden Hazard, Kevin De Bruyne, Vincent Kompany and Romelu Lukaku. With the current United squad led by the young talents of Paul Pogba, Eric Bailly, and Marcus  Rashford who are all under 25 years of age, Fellaini’s experience will be valued closely by Mourinho, particularly as dressing room leaders Wayne Rooney and Michael Carrick consider their futures at Old Trafford. “I know my quality, I know what I can do,” Fellaini told uefa.com after his winning goal against Celta Vigo. It is this confidence and experience that United need in their squad to continue to challenge across four competitions next season.

Central midfield stocks

With the summer transfer window upon us, one area touted for reinforcements is United’s central midfield. With the sale of Morgan Schneiderlin to Everton in January and Bastian Schweinsteiger’s move to Chicago, United have a shortage of choices in central midfield within the current squad. Michael Carrick for perhaps one more season and Ander Herrera are the automatic selections, with some auxiliary support from Wayne Rooney, Daley Blind and Reserve player Scott McTominay who stands as tall as Fellaini. Assuming a midfield three is Mourinho’s favoured strategy to get the best out of Paul Pogba, for a large squad the critical position of central midfield is not over-resourced. Monaco’s Tiemoue Bakayoko, Chelsea’s Nemanja Matic, Tottenham’s Eric Dier have all been rumoured to interest Mourinho this summer, but this does not necessarily spell the end for Fellaini.

Some would argue his best central position is having the ability to roam further forward, complemented by a strong defensive partner. This was the role he often fulfilled for Everton where he scored 25 goals in 141 appearances and it appeared in the second leg against Celta Vigo that Mourinho had given the Belgian more licence to get forward, leading to his well-taken goal from a Marcus Rashford cross of world-class quality. Long-term, if Mourinho believes Ander Herrera is Michael Carrick’s replacement, and Pogba is United’s most attack-minded midfielder, then Fellaini has proven he can complement both players in a midfield three.

Overall both Van Gaal and Mourinho have shown their faith in Fellaini demonstrating the ‘not a United player’ tag is an unfair one. The Belgian was never going to be the most dynamic passer or a player who beat defenders – but nor did he promise this when arriving at Old Trafford. His major disappointments in the United shirt have at times been his discipline, like conceding a last-minute penalty against his former club in December and his dismissal for tangling with Sergio Aguero against Manchester City, as well as his lack of goals. The lack of scoring can be somewhat based on his positioning deeper in United’s midfield compared with his time at Everton, but he has shown his eye for a big game having scored in the last three cup semi-finals United has played.

If United are going to compete in the Champions League as well as the three domestic competitions next season then there is little doubt that Marouane Fellaini has an important role in the United squad. Even if midfield reinforcements are purchased, Fellaini’s physicality and experience give him a unique edge, one that his manager and fellow players value highly. The secret for Mourinho is to play him in a structure and alongside players that leverage his considerable strengths, but also minimise his weaknesses.  Perhaps his biggest strength is the loyalty he has shown to United in his four seasons, despite continued conjecture and negativity over his future.  Whatever your opinion on his playing value to United, it is this loyalty that deserves respect most of all.

Written by Dave Campbell

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