Wednesday 21 March 2018

'As honest and committed as he is, Fellaini possesses the mobility of a milk float'

Manchester United's Marouane Fellaini
Manchester United's Marouane Fellaini
Manchester United's Belgian midfielder Marouane Fellaini is persued by Liverpool's English defender Joe Gomez

Mark Ogden

Marouane Fellaini may possess all the mobility of a milk float, but the Belgian cannot be blamed for Louis van Gaal's tactics with him up front.

When the Belgian was enduring his nightmare first season at Manchester United, the Belgian midfielder was nicknamed the ‘Lampshade’ by some supporters, not for his illuminating performances, but rather because his bushy haircut and static movement were deemed to resemble a light stuck in the corner of a room.

It is to Fellaini’s great credit that he was able to overcome such a negative start to life at Old Trafford to become a key figure under Louis van Gaal last season, but for all of his fighting spirit, the former Everton player will never win the hearts and minds of the club’s fans with his flair and inspiration.

But it only required a goalscoring flash of brilliance from Anthony Martial, United’s £36m deadline day signing from AS Monaco, to show what this team has been missing and what Fellaini, for all his effort, can never provide.

Fellaini’s physical characteristics make the 27-year-old an easy target for criticism, but Van Gaal’s decision to reinvent the gangly midfielder as a centre-forward has once again placed him the line of fire and not much of it is friendly.

Van Gaal’s stubborn insistence that Wayne Rooney could be relied upon to deliver at least 20 goals this season – the United captain has still score his first club goal this term – led to the Dutchman eschewing the opportunity to recruit a proven striker as cover or competition, despite the summer departures of Robin van Persie, Radamel Falcao and Javier Hernandez.

Manchester United's Belgian midfielder Marouane Fellaini is persued by Liverpool's English defender Joe Gomez
Manchester United's Belgian midfielder Marouane Fellaini is persued by Liverpool's English defender Joe Gomez

All would be fine, according to Van Gaal, but if anything was to go wrong, Fellaini would be able to step up and replace Rooney as United’s spearhead.

With Rooney tweaking his hamstring in training on Friday, however, Van Gaal was forced to test his masterplan against Liverpool at Old Trafford and, in a similar fashion to the narrative of the Emperor’s New Clothes, it was evident from the first bounce off Fellaini’s shins that Plan B may as well have been Plan Z.

Fellaini is no centre-forward, but the player cannot be blamed or ridiculed for his manager’s belief that he can be.

At Everton, David Moyes regularly deployed Fellaini in an advanced role and it worked successfully, but at Goodison Park, Moyes was smart enough to pair the 6ft 5ins midfielder with Tim Cahill, who knew instinctively how to capitalise on Fellaini’s aerial abilities in the final third.

Under Van Gaal, Fellaini is expected to provide a focal point and unsettle the opposition back four, but he has no runners in the Cahill mould to rely upon and lacks the movement to trouble any remotely capable central defender.

As honest and committed as he is, Fellaini possesses the mobility of a milk float and Liverpool defenders Martin Skrtel and Dejan Lovren knew exactly what they were up against.

There was no pace or unpredictability to trouble them. They simply had to deal with a stream of crosses, which appeared United’s only tactic for servicing their lone forward.

Ironically, for a team that has struggled to provide clear chances for Rooney this season, the first-half was littered with good balls into the penalty area for Fellaini.

But with Fellaini lacking a natural attacking instinct, his poor anticipation led to chances being spurned or balls simply hitting his shins and rolling away.

And after goalkeeper Simon Mignolet’s clearance fell at Fellaini’s feet thirty yards from goal, United’s makeshift centre-forward returned the ball by striking it almost thirty yards over the crossbar.

But while Fellaini’s presence up-front exasperates supporters, criticism directed his way is unfair on the grounds that he is merely carrying out his manager’s instructions.

Van Gaal’s failure to sufficiently strengthen his attacking department has led to Fellaini becoming an unlikely ‘false nine’ and if Rooney’s injury proves to problematic, the experiment may be forced to continue.

Martial, whose late goal after entering the fray as a substitute will do nothing to mute comparisons to Thierry Henry, may yet prove the answer for United, as may the Dutch forward Memphis Depay.

But both are too young to be relied upon to make the difference when it truly matters and the absence of experienced cover for Rooney has led to Fellaini, in some sense, becoming the patsy.

He can be effective and a nuisance – a battering ram in the final ten minutes – but if United are to challenge for the Premier League and in Europe this season, Martial rather than Fellaini has to be the solution.

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