Tuesday 25 October 2016

Comment: Fellaini's face might not fit, but the Belgian is an all too easy United scapegoat

Published 18/01/2016 | 15:23

Manchester United's Marouane Fellaini
Manchester United's Marouane Fellaini
Marouane Fellaini scoring for Manchester United last season
Liverpool's Roberto Firmini in action with Manchester United's Marouane Fellaini

The performance of Marouane Fellaini at Anfield in Manchester United's narrow victory at Anfield was in many ways reflective of the Belgian's time at Old Trafford.

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Often sloppy in possession, failing to track midfield runners and engaging in mini-battles throughout the pitch, he offered numerous examples of why he has struggled to shake the commonly-held opinion that the club's eighth-most expensive signing simply isn’t up to the standards required at United.

Then, almost inevitably, he illustrated an area of strength that few can deny the much-maligned Belgian has.

With 12 minutes remaining, an underwhelming United had yet to register their first shot on target against a profligate home side, when Juan Mata's cross was met by the towering midfielder.

Despite the attentions of four Liverpool defenders, his headed effort thundered off the crossbar before Wayne Rooney swept home the rebound for a rare Anfield goal, and all of the offensive failings of the previous 78 minutes were excused.

It isn't the first example of Fellaini causing havoc to the benefit of his team-mates, though some critics will point to the fact that the former Everton man is equally adept at causing chaos for his colleagues.

The question is, does he produce enough to warrant a place at Old Trafford?

Manager Louis van Gaal seems to think so, at the very least as an impact player. He has been sprung off the bench (10) more often than any other United player. Only seven players have racked up more appearances, so the man with league success in Holland, Spain and Germany sees something many others do not.

Liverpool's Roberto Firmini in action with Manchester United's Marouane Fellaini
Liverpool's Roberto Firmini in action with Manchester United's Marouane Fellaini

So what does he offer?

Certainly not the ability to provide goals directly for those around him. David Moyes didn't splash £27.5m on a player who would thread balls through for his forwards – Fellaini has just one Premier League assist in his United career – but he's clearly a handful for defences.

The style of football that utilises his strength in the penalty area has been a source of consternation among the Old Trafford faithful and certainly adds fuel to the fire that he is simply an over-priced battering ram.

Van Gaal is managing a team very much in transition – arguably only David De Gea of the current crop would get a look-in with an Alex Ferguson side in its pomp – and while the purists, neutrals and club supporters regularly look on in dismay at the fare being served up, Fellaini offers something. Just not exactly what they want.

Think of Rooney's penalty against Newcastle and Fellaini's role in earning it, and again yesterday causing further distress to the Liverpool rear-guard.

This in itself is clearly not enough to justify a lofty price tag, but some underwhelming performances (not an isolated case at Old Trafford) and an eye-catching appearance have transformed the player into a figure of ridicule in some quarters.

Marouane Fellaini scoring for Manchester United last season
Marouane Fellaini scoring for Manchester United last season

Bear in mind this is a 64-cap international, an integral member of a star-studded Belgium that is currently ranked number one in the world and a leading contender at this summer's European Championships in France.

Only Juan Mata, Rooney and Robin van Persie scored more goals last term as the top four objective was met, a feat that looked beyond their reach at different stages of the campaign.

Rarely does analysis of the midfielder fail to mention the 28-year-old's perceived ill-discipline. Fellaini may have collected bookings in his last two outings, in both cases after a series of niggling fouls, yet has just one other caution this season, a clear improvement on past behaviour. The dismissal last May for a reckless challenge on Paul McShane in particular springs to mind.

The constant interaction with referees doesn't help matters, with Rooney instructing his team-mate to move away from referee Mark Clattenburg on Merseyside as the irate midfielder attempted to draw attention to his perceived injustices.

It is however hard to shake the feeling that Fellaini is destined never to win the fans over and should Van Gaal depart in the summer, Fellaini may well be one of the first casualties of the first-team squad.

In an article entitled 'Five inanimate objects better at football than Manchester United's Marouane Fellaini', a club fanzine recently discussed the limitations in the lead-up to the clash with Liverpool.

"Manchester United have certainly not lacked for rubbish footballers over recent years. But none have been as maddeningly, comically bad as Fellaini," the article wrote.

Incidentally, one of the inanimate objects listed was the rotting corpse of Wayne Rooney, the club captain, so he isn't alone when it comes to stinging criticism.

And perhaps therein lies the key.

A club that has feasted on Premier League success under Ferguson is now in choppy waters. A seventh place finish following the Scot's departure was, at the time, almost written off as a season of transition, while the goal this season, like last year, is simply top four. A title tilt is aspirational rather that expectation and it's more likely that a marquee player will depart (De Gea) rather than arrive (Gareth Bale).

As the fanzine alluded to, Old Trafford has witnessed many players struggle on the big stage, some that also dug deep into the coffers.

Players such as Juan Sebastian Veron, and to a lesser extent Dimitar Berbatov, flattered to deceive, but they had the luxury of playing alongside some of the finest to ever don the club colours.

With domestic domination and eventual success in Europe, the aforementioned and others were alongside, and replaced, by world class players, under the instructions of a ruthless manager who forced upon the squad the attacking football so cherished by the Stretford End.

Fellaini finds himself in a completely different environment and is an easy scapegoat for all that is wrong in the red half of Manchester.

Such a reading is perhaps too simplistic, but when your face doesn't fit, the ending is somewhat inevitable, whenever that may be.

He need only look to the man that brought him to Old Trafford for proof.

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