Marouane Fellaini – So Good he’s Bad
I’ll set my stall out from the start: I am not a fan of Marouane Fellaini. It’s nothing personal; I actually think that he’s exceptionally good at what he does. My issue is that I’m a fan of football. I watch it for its entertainment value, for its artistry, for slick, incisive passing movements or gifted dribblers exhibiting their abilities. Fellaini is not all of those things. In fact he is not even close to being one of those things. Fellaini is no more an artist than Van Gogh was a bruising centre forward.
Fellaini’s attributes, though, are numerous. I remember several displays against United when he was with Everton that he was simply unplayable. Whether it was against the ruthless Vidic or the profligate Evans, he bullied them from first whistle to last. He provided a focal point, and he made the ball stick. He has the best chest in world football. He is a monster in the air. He can elbow an opponent directly in the face (or head-butt as Ryan Shawcross would attest) and get away with it because he makes it look like an awkward accident from a bizarrely-shaped professional athlete.
Presumably it was these attributes that convinced his Everton manager David Moyes to bring him with him to Old Trafford for a reported £27.5 million. He was the only high-profile incoming player in the summer of 2013, and Moyes obviously knew what he was getting having also brought him to Everton for £13 million from Standard Liege in 2008 when he was just a slight 20 year old.
His first season at the club, though, was universally acknowledged as a disaster. Fellaini was unrecognisable compared to the monster he had been, and when he wasn’t injured he was drifting through games like Bambi’s mum learning to roller skate. In fairness to Fellaini, Moyes seemed to have no idea how to use him, deploying him in defensive midfield alongside Michael Carrick in a pairing that displayed as much pace as a nursery school father and son sack race. Like so many players in the last couple of seasons, it appeared that Manchester United had destroyed yet another career of a multi-million pound ‘glamour’ signing. A transfer to Napoli was believed to be on the way last summer until an injury to Fellaini dictated that he remained as a part of the van Gaal regime.
Fellaini did not appear to fit the mould of a van Gaal player. The oft-cited ‘philosophy’, in his previous management roles at Ajax, Bayern Munich, and Barcelona in particular, dictated that his players retain possession and stick to very tight and structured tactical plans, with strict formations. Retention of possession is key to the game plan; not quite the tiki-taka of modern day Barcelona, his style is a little less progressive and positive. Nevertheless, it requires technically adept players capable of a range of intelligent passing and positional awareness. Hardly surprising that big Marouane appeared surplus to requirements.
So it was by circumstance rather than design that he found himself thrust into action earlier this season, most prominently away to West Brom at the Hawthornes. He was introduced at half time of a typical United away performance, insofar as they were behind and struggling to create chances and impose themselves in the attacking third. Fellaini was still a laughing stock, a figure of fun for other clubs. Who would have thought a clumsy beanpole 6 foot 4” afroman would ever be viewed that way? When he was introduced, the person in charge of the West Brom Twitter account posted the comment “Fellaini has now taken his tracksuit off, fortunately he has a Man United strip on underneath”. That sort of hilarious jibe was commonplace at the time. He was a derided figure who struck fear into opposing fans about as much as…. Falcao now seems to. However, within three minutes of entering the fray, the Fellaini of old was back, controlling a high ball on his world class chest, side stepping his marker, and slamming the ball into the top corner. He made a huge impact and dictated United’s play for the remainder of that game. He became the focal point, and was responsible for them rescuing a point in the fixture as another long ball aimed at him fell for Daley Blind to finish.
From that point on, Fellaini has been referred to as van Gaal’s Plan B. Namely, the usual disciplined, patient, possession-based approach hasn’t worked, so the big man comes on to wreak havoc and give the defenders something to aim at with a succession of ‘long passes’. The tactic prompted Sam Allardyce to have a dig in the media at United’s ‘long ball approach’. This caused an irked van Gaal to produce an embarrassing dossier to dispel that notion, but there was unfortunately more than an element of truth to the comment.
The worrying thing in my view is that Fellaini has steadily worked his way into a starting berth. He has been used in a variety of positions; some with greater impact than others. He has been used with fairly disastrous consequences at the base of a diamond, inexplicably on the left side of a diamond, and also in the number 10 position. If he is to be used, up front or off the striker is where he must play. It maximises his physical impact and minimises the damage he can do playing in midfield. His distribution is woeful, and his first touch is worthy of a Sunday League pitch.
The stats do not reflect my opinion: Fellaini has a pass completion rate 86%, of which 62% were forward passes. This is why I attach little credence to stats. The way to judge the relative abilities of a player is to watch the games. Fellaini is not a creative player; he is a safe player in possession. It makes me sad to my core to think that a graceful, elegant and above all effective player like Juan Mata could be left on the bench to accommodate Fellaini. I can appreciate his selection is a means to an end, but in my opinion the attacking resources are there to enable the side to play with much greater creativity and flourish. They should seek to play with greater pace, width, and variation. The performance against Tottenham was the closest they have come to achieving this, my fear is that it proves to be another false dawn. The inclusion of Fellaini always leads to defenders taking the easy option and launching it towards him. If he was genuinely a Plan B, a last resort, I could handle that. However, he is starting games and it has a significant impact on the brand of football produced.
The fact remains Fellaini was excellent again against Spurs on Sunday, and it would be impossible not to start him at Anfield this Sunday. At this point in the season I’m not even sure I’d object to him starting as a more pragmatic, even negative approach may well be what is required to get a result against Liverpool.
One thing I want to be clear on though, is that Marouane Fellaini is not, and never has been, a Manchester United calibre player. He is playing increasingly well, and is responsible for United gaining several points this season. However, I also believe that their reliance upon him has had a negative impact on the flow and style of their play, and has kept more talented and, frankly, entertaining players out of the side.
So please Marouane, come the summer, take the opportunity to be the main man at a smaller team, and go ahead and have a good career elsewhere. Everton was a club taylor made for him. They catered their style of play to suit him, and Moyes was able to get the best out of him. But this is Manchester United, a club in transition, but a club with aspirations of returning to the top of European football. They are not going to get there by using Fellaini as a focal point. Real Madrid and Barcelona are not going to come calling for a player like him, and there’s a reason for it: a top team cannot accommodate a one-dimensional target man.
It is too predictable, and therefore too easy to prepare for and negate. It will work against certain middling Premier League sides, but the tactic represents regression as opposed to progression. Louis van Gaal is a smart man who has a track record of managing successful teams who play attractive football. I hope the Fellaini phase is limited to one season only… although I’ll not complain if he feels like flattening Martin Skrtel on Sunday.