Fellaini sums up United's search for their identity
Published 14/01/2016 | 02:30
When Roy Keane reflected on the various clubs that Manchester United had to overcome in the era of Alex Ferguson's dominance of English football, he ignored the usual conventions of polite deference when it came to Newcastle United, and their passion-heavy, trophy-light modern history.
"I always thought they were an arrogant bunch, for a club that had won f*** all," Keane wrote in his second autobiography of 2014. "We always got decent results at St James' Park; it wasn't a bad place to play. But as for the Toon Army, the Geordies, the hostile reception - I never fell for all that crap."
Of course, by then Keane had been manager of Sunderland, and all that entails, but looking back at his playing record it is hard to argue with him. During Keane's time at United his club won seven out of 13 league games at St James' Park, and lost just three. He was sent off there twice.
When Kieron Dyer left Newcastle in 2007 he had scored fewer goals at St James' Park in his last five seasons than Paul Scholes did at the stadium over the same period.
Ferguson's players probably nurtured the same feelings for other clubs but 20 years ago Newcastle had been, briefly, a genuine league title rival.
Then they had gone the other way and embraced what Keane and Ferguson would have regarded at best as mediocrity, and there was never any time for that in the golden age of Old Trafford.
Which is why it was hard to reconcile the sorts of mitigating factors that were being proffered in defence of United after Tuesday's 3-3 draw at Newcastle.
The most entertaining game of the Premier League season? Possibly, but there was a time when United's default role in the best games of the season was to win them, like the comeback against Tottenham in 2001 when they were 3-0 down at half-time and won 5-3.
On Tuesday night, United played more like a Newcastle team that Keane would remember from the later stages of his playing career: exciting in attack but also vulnerable and profligate and not really anyone's idea of a title contender.
There was a right-back at left-back, a midfielder at centre-half and a winger at right-back, and when you add all that up it is no great surprise that last-minute goals get conceded.
In midfield, Marouane Fellaini is the habit United cannot kick, an unclassifiable presence within the squad's hierarchy whom the club would gladly sell for the right price and yet equally see fit to select for a crucial midweek away game in January. In that way he is indicative of United's forlorn search for identity.
His physicality is a fragment of what has been lost from the great recent past of United when there were some magnificent bullies in Ferguson's teams from the early '90s onwards. Ferguson would often refer to his title-winning teams of '93 and '94 as the template for a side that, depending on what was required, could outfight an opponent or outplay them.
On a good day, Fellaini represents one of the last vestiges of the tradition of the latter. On a bad day, it is neither.
It is a fitting summary of his career at Old Trafford that his performance on Tuesday was by no means a disaster even though it included a mistake for Newcastle's first goal, missing a good chance and kicking out at Fabricio Coloccini when already on a booking.
United's injury problems are not so acute, the gap to the Champions League places not so great that they cannot salvage a place in the top four. Their run-in, with games away to Liverpool, Chelsea, Manchester City, Tottenham and West Ham to come, is relatively testing. But it is what lies beyond that makes you wonder, as they approach their fourth summer of the post-Ferguson era.
Tuesday night told you that the squad remains a strange compendium of styles, with the first XI encompassing five Van Gaal signings, four from Ferguson, one from David Moyes, and Jesse Lingard from the academy.
United seem wedded to replicating the Ferguson days when one man, in concert with the chief executive, did everything, rather than accept the reality that life has changed forever at modern clubs.
There is still no technical director at United, nor have the club formally appointed an academy director. Which means that chief executive Ed Woodward has to do battle on all fronts against clubs that allocate huge resources and time towards a vision for the team in five, or 10 years' time.
United just seem to want to go back to being United again, but they look further away every year.
If City appoint Pep Guardiola in the summer then that will be the next stage of a plan that began with the arrival of director of football Txiki Begiristain, in 2012 along with chief executive Ferran Sorriano.
The unpredictable Guardiola might yet go elsewhere, but the plan endures and is refined. Without the gilded history of their neighbours to fall back on, City, like Chelsea, have had to think strategically and while that has involved spending a lot of money, that alone is no guarantee of success - as all of them, including United, have demonstrated at different times.
Tuesday night at St James' Park was an entertainment and there were some good aspects from Van Gaal's team, but there were also a lot of mistakes from both sides.
There is a fine line between being a club which wins trophies and the one that Keane used to encounter at St James' Park which served up some great games but never delivered any tangible success. And it is clear which one Manchester United see themselves as.