The curious case of Marouane Fellaini
Marouane Fellaini - a household name in football at the moment and one of the many footballers that the media likes to target on a regular basis. But is it for the right reasons?
Standing 6? 4? tall with his Afro, Fellaini seldom ceases to gain our attention. Not the most technically gifted, often rash and impulsive in tackling and sometimes clueless in possession. Then why is he still a central figure at Manchester United, one might argue. The answer, though debatable, is obvious.
Summer of 2013. Manchester United had won the league yet again and Sir Alex Ferguson stepped down after an unparalleled spell at the helm. The greatest story in British football was set to continue, with his close friend and countryman David Moyes, who brought along with him his trusted lieutenant from Everton, Marouane Fellaini.
The duo had enjoyed five respectable seasons at Everton. But they failed miserably in replicating that success at United. Moyes was shown the door and the onus fell on the vastly experienced Louis van Gaal who had to build the team from scratch.
A bountiful transfer budget was made available. Over the course of two years, some of the biggest names in world football were roped in. All of them came with a common aim: to take United back to Europe's elite. The Dutchman did a decent job by strengthening the foundation of the squad, but unfortunately had only an FA cup to show for it. The fans had seen enough of the possession based, robotic brand of football.
Mourinho and his love for a "tough" midfielder
Summer of 2016, Jose Mourinho was available after his strife with Chelsea. The Old Trafford hot seat was empty and the Portuguese wasted no time to pounce on his 'dream' job. One of the greatest tactical masterminds of the 21st century, Mourinho, and United had one thing in common, one goal that both of them lived for: to reclaim the lost glory. To bring back the attitude and swagger that they had become embodiment of.
Fellaini was the first name that pundits and critics alike thought Mourinho would clear out. Little did they know how wrong they were! Throughout his career, if there was one thing typical about a Mourinho squad, it was the presence of a combative defensive midfielder at the heart of his team.
Costinha played a pivotal role in Porto's historic Champions League triumph in 2004. At Chelsea, Mourinho projected Makelele onto the football map who redefined the role when they won successive league titles. Cambiasso was a central figure when Inter won the treble in 2010. Xabi Alonso and Sami Khedira did the job effectively at Madrid and Nemanja Matic was ever present in his second stint at Chelsea.
Now, where is Fellaini in comparison with the aforementioned players? Perhaps a question of comparison does not arise.
What makes Fellaini a manager's favourite?
But there is something that sets him on par with all of them, overlooked many a time, and sets him apart from the superstars who have failed to shine at United. And that is, 100% commitment and devotion to that famous red shirt. A quality that is slowly becoming extinct in football players and one of paramount importance.
Every time he plays, if there is one thing he exemplifies, it is his allegiance. Sometimes this is what managers look for in a player. A player who always works hard, ready to give everything on the pitch and knows his role and place in a group will always be a manager's favourite. Whether he is able to produce results and become successful is secondary. And there are not many clubs in the world that value this quality more than United.
What does Fellaini bring to Manchester United?
In the 2016-17 season when Fellaini gave away a cheap penalty to surrender the lead against Everton, even the most optimistic of United fans called for his departure. The following week he was booed by a section of United supporters when he was about to be subbed in.
Those jeers were suppressed by another group who cheered him, those who recognised his contribution, however little, to this football club. He is not some one who will always provide through balls that splits the defence. Nor is he someone who can dictate a game on his own.
He is there to mix it up, put his body on the line and win back the ball at any cost. He is an indomitable presence and unflinching in the air and is extremely useful at both ends of the pitch. He is the focal point of every single goal kick De Gea takes and he chests down every single one of them effectively.
He has often been used as a target man, almost as a second striker, and this has paid dividends many a time. He has pitched in with crucial goals and assists, notably in a Manchester derby in 2015, in United's FA Cup victory in 2016 and in their Europa league triumph in 2017.
Equally important defensive contributions, mostly, aerial clearances and interceptions to protect the goal have scarcely been noticed. Even Real Madrid seemed to struggle when he came on for United in the UEFA Super Cup last week. This approach may turn out to be a perfect plan B against teams that set out to defend and model their game on defensive compactness.
How can Fellaini fit in Mourinho's second season at United?
Mourinho's record in his second year at his previous clubs is impressive, to say the least. He has won the league every time and that adds an extra expectation on Manchester United this season. And, if indeed, United find themselves in a title race this season, we can expect Fellaini to be an integral part of the squad.
Fellaini and Ander Herrera complemented each other and played together in many games for United in the 2016-17 season. Mourinho is likely to stick to either a 4-2-3-1 or a 4-3-3 formation at United. Fellaini may well form the double pivot in the centre with Nemanja Matic as Mourinho usually likes to give extra protection to his defence in some of the games, if not all.
Also, he can occasionally swap roles with Paul Pogba, to play in a bit more attacking role, with the Frenchman dropping deeper. Else, he can effectively play in a three-man midfield with him and Pogba on either side of Matic. This trio could turn out to be a force to be reckoned with, particularly when United are protecting a lead or in tricky away games in the Champions League this season.
When a manager puts such faith in a player at a time when the rest of the world criticise him, that in itself acts as a trigger to reciprocate and Fellaini has so far been able to do exactly that.
Fellaini has managed to outlive the likes of Di Maria, Falcao, Schweinsteiger, Schneiderlin, Depay and club icon Wayne Rooney, whatever be the forces that led to their exit. With the arrival of Matic from Chelsea, opportunities may now seem limited for the Belgian, but if called upon, he will be ready to fight against everything that stand in his way to repay the manager's faith.
Instead of turning his back on challenges like many others, he faced them with courage and immense mental strength, for which credit is overdue. And the longer he continues to do that, the longer he will remain a Red Devil.