Comment: Why fighter Marouane Fellaini has a massive role to play alongside Paul Pogba at Manchester United
When David Moyes gave the traditional manager’s remarks on the arrival of Marouane Fellaini at Old Trafford in September 2013, the then Manchester United boss made the fatal error of telling us what was really on his mind, rather than honouring the new-signing convention of praise and optimism.
Sure, he noted Fellaini’s ability and strength, and drew attention to his capacity to play any number of positions but then he pointed out who he would rather have had at his disposal. “I think it’s definitely a position where people have said we’ve been short of numbers, with the likes of Paul Scholes [retiring] and Darren Fletcher not ready to come back just now,” Moyes said. “I felt we needed to strengthen there and I’m glad we got him.”
Not quite the tickertape welcome, and nothing like the social-media blitz that accompanied this week’s return of Paul Pogba, whose arrival had all the trappings of a state visit, only missing Ed Woodward standing on the tarmac as the doors to the midfielder’s private jet opened. By contrast, back in 2013, you could imagine Fellaini getting his own bags out of the taxi and having to spell his name a couple of times for the security man on the Carrington gate.
Three years on since he was United’s transfer of last resort, however, Fellaini is still there. He’s still starting games. He still looks ready for an argument with anyone who might question his right to be at Old Trafford. And maybe that is the point about Fellaini – he has grown so accustomed to fighting his corner that it has come to define him as a player at United.
After Friday night’s win over Southampton at Old Trafford, in which the Belgium international played a key role as the defensive midfielder partnering Pogba, Jose Mourinho was asked what he thought were the reasons behind Fellaini’s transformation. This may come as a surprise to some readers but it turns out Mourinho thought that he himself was pretty fundamental to the new lease of life for United’s No 27.
The United manager said that he texted Fellaini a day after arriving to tell the player that whatever he heard or read, Mourinho wanted him to stay. Fellaini will have been around long enough to know that the first thing a new manager says on a matter is not always his final feelings but Mourinho has been true to his word, and the Belgian is ahead of Michael Carrick, Morgan Schneiderlin and Ander Herrera in this new Pogba era.
Of course, Mourinho has long been wedded to the notion of the 6ft 2in-plus central midfielder who can break up play and rough up opponents. He once described with disbelief the decision at Chelsea to let Nemanja Matic leave on the basis that as a manager, he would never acquiesce to the departure of a “left-footed, 1.95m tall midfield player”. That height figure was referenced with the kind of solemn reverence a trainspotting enthusiast might reserve for the exact dimensions of the broad-gauge track.
So there were things that counted in Fellaini’s favour when Mourinho was given the corner office at Carrington, although there was much that was not. In many respects Fellaini had come to represent the mediocrity of the post-Alex Ferguson era, a battering ram who was deployed at the end of games, an underwhelming solution to an overwhelming problem. He was the unfashionable Plan B at a club who had got used to having a perfect Plan A.
United teams under Ferguson had often made use of physical midfielders and physical forwards over the years, one more option among the rich array of change-ups they could effect. In the worst times since 2013, the hardest thing for United fans to accept about Fellaini was that he often looked like their best option.
Early days yet, but what makes Fellaini a more natural fit in this United team is that amid the new influx of superstars - the most expensive footballer in the world, the most confident footballer in the world – he now has a realistic place in the hierarchy. Fellaini is there to do what he does best: break up the play, fill the spaces left by Pogba and provide the aggravation when necessary.
Every good team requires that agent provocateur, although those who fulfil the role best have generally managed to be more discreet about it than Fellaini, whose flying elbows have made him a liability at times. The Europa League round of 16 second-leg tie against Liverpool last season was a case in point and, as with so many of Fellaini’s lowest moments, it coincided with one of United bleakest nights of the season.
As a player who often attracts, at best, a grim kind of tolerance at Old Trafford, he might have just left. He could have headed off to the proverbial elephant’s graveyard to which so many United players, and staff have journeyed over the years – that football club just behind the waterfall known as Sunderland AFC. Yet there is something to admire at the way Fellaini has clung tenaciously to the dream of playing at United.
He will know that players like him tend only to get one shot at playing at one of the great clubs of English football. His friend Christian Benteke has admitted defeat this week and left Liverpool for Crystal Palace, and the chances are that he will never return to a similar level. Fellaini has two years left on that dream contract Moyes gave him three years ago and if he does sign another one, unlikely though that might once have been, he can say that his longevity also reflects well on the man who signed him.