At the Riverside on Sunday Mourinho set United up to counter attack with pace against a technically limited opponent, and in the first half it was a tactic that was proving effective. Marcus Rashford spurned two glorious chances and Middlesborough were opened up time and time again, particularly on their left hand side. However, as has so often been the case this season, promising positions in the final third did not translate to goals and the breakthrough simply would not come. There was a growing concern that United could be punished for their profligacy again. Then, with half an hour on the clock, Ashley Young received the ball on the left, checked inside and crossed deep. United’s forwards were nowhere to be seen, but there at the far post, isolating the diminutive former United full back Fabio, was Marouane Fellaini, who headed home with ease. The deadlock was broken and, facing a team which had scored only three times in their previous ten Premier League games, United were well on the way to an enormously important victory in their quest for Champions League football next season. Where pace and incisive passing had failed, the direct approach had succeeded. It was only Fellaini’s fourteenth goal in 120 appearances for the club, but like many of the others it was a strike of some importance.
Fellaini has long been a figure of fun at United, a symbol of the wretchedly incompetent Moyes tenure, a player signed at the death in a comical transfer window who could have been acquired for £4m less a week before. Even for Moyes, the Belgian was a booby prize. A highly effective attacking presence in an Everton side where results trumped style, the Scot tried to lever his new signing into a traditional midfield role, a position for which he had neither the technique nor mobility to play and Fellaini’s hapless lumbering performances defined a season. Moyes could have signed Thiago Alcantara, a deliciously gifted technician and made a doomed late run for Ander Herrera, but ended up with a midfielder as far from those players in talent and style as possible. The Daily Telegraph listed Fellaini in their ten worst buys on the season. Few Reds would argue.
Fellaini’s second season at the club, under Louis Van Gaal, would prove slightly more productive, and important goals were scored against Palace, Manchester City, Stoke and West Brom, but the die was cast and that sinking feeling had become familiar to fans when they saw his name on the team sheet, a sensation which remains for many to this day. The Belgian became, as far as I can remember, the only United player jeered and ironically cheered by his own fans at Old Trafford, a horrible, toxic state of affairs which should shame all those involved. The experience must have been devastating for the player and it is to his credit that he did not throw in the towel and walk away. Fellaini, after all, did not ask to be signed and, like most players, jumped at the chance to play for United. His limited talents are not his fault and, despite his physical stature and combative playing style, he is a quiet, sensitive soul.
Despite a third season in which he scored important goals against Brugge and in the FA Cup semi final versus Everton, it was assumed that new manager Jose Mourinho would move the Belgian on last summer. To our surprise he did not, and Fellaini began the season in a holding midfield role. The Portuguese quickly established that the player was not suited to that position as a starter and began to use him either in a more advanced midfield role or as an attacking weapon from the bench, offering height and physicality when technique and guile have proven ineffective. The player, it would appear, has now found his niche, and in 2017 has already made telling contributions in the Premier League, League Cup, Europa League and FA Cup.
Now 29, the question is whether he has done enough to secure a medium term future at the club. Where once he was shamefully barracked, the Stretford End, without shame, now sings his name in support. Fellaini never complains and seems happy with his lot, as a squad man with a unique skill set, and under the arch-pragmatist Mourinho United fans seem finally to have accepted that there are times when direct football is needed. What’s more, his £80k per week wage, whilst huge compared to the Premier League average, is relative chicken feed for the club. At the start of the season most would have ushered the Belgian out of the door before Morgan Schneiderlin and Bastian Schweinsteiger, but when it was the Frenchman who was sold in January few were outraged that he should depart before Fellaini. Likewise, with the German, now headed to Chicago Fire. Many must now feel a degree of respect for the former Evertonian, for the mockery he has faced without complaint and the way he has risen above it. After scoring United’s second in the home leg of the League Cup semi final against Hull City the Belgian ran to the bench and embraced his manager, an act which exposed the enormous gratitude he feels to Mourinho for trusting him. A 12 month contract extension was triggered in January, at the very least to preserve the player’s value and give his manager the option of retaining him into next season. It would be no surprise were he to do so.
There is no doubt that Marouane Fellaini is marmite for United fans. This writer has been hyper-critical of his talents and contribution in the past, but has also felt dismay when he has been abused and mocked at Old Trafford by his own fans. That sinking feeling when his name is on the team sheet remains, but it is less intense than it once was, recognition perhaps of the growing importance of his role under Jose Mourinho. Whilst we crave and have been rewarded with more attacking, incisive football, the limited success it has delivered and the cult status the manager enjoys have combined to create a recognition that other alternative approaches are sometimes necessary. It has taken three disappointing years, but finally we have come to accept that a tall, physically imposing presence in attacking areas is sometimes a necessity and that Marouane Fellaini largely plays that role with aplomb. In December he came on as a late substitute at Goodison Park with United protecting a one goal lead and promptly conceded a penalty with a clumsy, needless challenge in the box. His stock at that point arguably reached a new low, but three months later Fellaini has offered up enough positive contributions and showed enough fight to at least have opened up the debate as to whether he holds genuine value in this squad. Once amongst his greatest critics I would now argue that he has unique attributes and could prove to be an important weapon in what will be an insanely hectic last two months of the season.