Wednesday 23 October 2019

Comment: Fellaini miscast as Umtiti becomes unexpected hero among list of likely suspects

Belgium's midfielder Marouane Fellaini. Photo: Gabriel Bouys/AFP/Getty Images
Belgium's midfielder Marouane Fellaini. Photo: Gabriel Bouys/AFP/Getty Images

Jonathan Liew

A game this good, with players this good, is a bit like the early stages of one of those Agatha Christie murder mystery ensembles.

Who's going to wield the deadly weapon? At first you start to suspect one or two of the main characters, but as the plot unfolds, you realise you haven't the faintest idea.

There's the dashing Mr De Bruyne, charming and yet with a latent menace.

There's Mr Pogba, scheming away, in cahoots with his friend Mr Mbappe.

There's Dr Hazard, lurching diabolically towards the byline.

There's Reverend Lukaku, looking suspiciously quiet.

Then there's Professor Griezmann, Colonel Matuidi, Miss Giroud. Christ, this could be anybody. They're all just so… capable.

But nobody suspected Mr Umtiti, in the six-yard-box, with the flicked header.

And in many ways, it was the best twist of a game that defied any attempt to characterise it.

It was a game of abundant attacking players settled by a single goal by a defender from a set-piece.

It was a meeting of two of the tournament's best defences in which the two goalkeepers were somehow the stars of the show.

It was a game that saw wave after wave of French counter-attacks, but where the decisive play came from a slow move built up from the back.

Where a Belgium team assembled to soak up pressure and hit on the break ended up doing almost the exact opposite.

A game featuring a billion euros' worth of talent, and yet which saw Marouane Fellaini (right) playing on the left wing for almost half its duration.

Yes, in a sense the story of Fellaini was the story of Belgium's night.

Which is not to blame him or single him out for their World Cup exit, but merely that he seemed to epitomise a Belgium strategy that began to lose its way towards the end of the end of the first half, and simply started lurching itself at France in the hope that something would stick.

And that the dilemma of how best to exploit Fellaini's many attributes in many ways mirrors Belgium's: a varied and unique cocktail of skills and competencies that are as easily misused as used.

What sort of a player is Fellaini, anyway? Managers have withered on the vine trying to work that question out, and even within this match Roberto Martinez seemed undecided.

He began at the tip of a three-man midfield ahead of Mousa Dembele and Axel Witsel, and for a while almost began to play like a regular midfielder: laying the ball off intelligently, playing some good passes in tight spots, even trying a little cheeky flick to lay the ball off to Eden Hazard.

But alas, this Marouane had not long to live. Towards the end of the first half, Martinez decided to unleash Evil Marouane: pushing him out towards the left wing, with the brief of sneaking towards the back post - insofar as Fellaini can sneak anywhere - and getting on the end of De Bruyne's inswinging crosses.

Early in the second half, he went up for a header and poignantly was denied by Paul Pogba: these two Manchester United team-mates, the suave young prince and the court jester, the world-record signing and the player described by one of the club's own fanzines as a "bog brush".

It was Fellaini who was beaten in the air by Umtiti for France's goal, and a few minutes after that he missed a chance to atone when he stole ahead of Pogba and headed the ball wide. And that was all.

Remarkably, that was the only aerial duel Fellaini won in the game, out of the six he contested.

Martinez had ripped up Belgium's game-plan, moved Hazard out of position, recalibrated virtually his entire strategy, all for one header.

So what did Fellaini do the rest of the time? Well, he did pretty much what you would expect Fellaini to do on the left wing: lope around looking busy, receiving the ball and getting rid of it just as quickly, and on a couple of occasions even getting in a position to cross, which was just as well, because the 5ft 8in Hazard was hurtling into the area.

It was like using a rolling pin to slice bread.

And then, with 10 minutes left, Martinez finally admitted defeat and brought him off for Yannick Carrasco.

Not that Belgium could really create much thereafter, either. It was the sort of situation, in fact, where you would have loved to be able to bring Fellaini off the bench.

And you wonder, when Martinez debriefs this game, or perhaps revisits it many years from now, whether he will look back and wonder what on earth he was doing.

Nacer Chadli at right-back. Eden Hazard as a central playmaker. Three defensive midfielders against a team that doesn't really play the ball through central midfield. And Fellaini at left wing.

But then, that's the thing about football. It doesn't always have to make sense. (© Independent News Service)

Irish Independent

The Left Wing: Ireland fall short again, 2019 slump and what Andy Farrell must do as head coach

Editor's Choice

Also in Sport