A side’s most totemic player doesn’t always have to be its best footballer. Often, it’s a plucky-but-plodding midfielder with a dodgy haircut, or an inspirational captain whose ‘leadership qualities’ mask his lack of actual talent. Or, as is arguably the case with the current Manchester United team, a lanky mop-haired Belgian apparently constructed entirely out of the discarded shoulder-blades and kneecaps of now-extinct prehistoric species.
As much as any other player in the 2017/18 squad, Marouane Fellaini represents José Mourinho’s United.
He’s scrappy, determined, dogged and painfully limited in terms of technique. You’re never really sure what he actually does, but you know he’s been given clear instructions to do something, most likely something destructive or violent.
Fellaini isn’t the worst player ever to play for United. But he’s also very far from the best. Yet, given the way Mourinho has been speaking about the player’s contract negotiations, you’d imagine the Belgian to be the finest central midfielder to set foot on the Old Trafford turf since the Ginger Ninja last mistimed a sliding tackle into the thighs of an unsuspecting opponent.
“The position is that we are almost there [with the contract] but in football ‘almost there’ is not enough…” bemoaned Mourinho recently. “I want to see the white paper with the United crest and Ed Woodward’s signature and Marouane Fellaini’s signature.”
That cloying desperation says a lot about Mourinho’s outlook on what football is all about. It seems clear he views Fellaini as an avatar in which he envisages an imaginary, aspirational version of himself in the big Belgian. So tall! So strong! So VIOLENT! Had José ever been good enough to make it as a professional footballer, Fellaini is precisely the type of player he would have wanted to be.
In fairness, it’s not as if Fellaini hasn’t come up trumps for José on several occasions, the most recent example being the late headed winner against Arsenal. There’s no real questioning the fact that he is a reliable, dedicated footballer.
But many United supporters will – and do – argue that this isn’t enough to justify his place at the club. Indeed, it’s hard to see him regularly getting into the present City, Liverpool, Spurs or Chelsea sides. Still, those sides don’t play like Manchester United and, more importantly, they don’t have José Mourinho as manager.
And so, with his manic brand of industrious, hirsute energy, Fellaini has made himself integral at Old Trafford. The go-to guy when a game needs changing and the coach knows only one way of doing so. Paul Pogba and David De Gea may be stars, but it’s possible that in 15 years’ time when we look back at José’s MUFC, the first person we think of will not be either of these precocious, gifted princelings, but a bustling Belge with a penchant for grievous bodily harm.
Here’s to you, Marouane.