If there is one player, one figure, who embodies just how far Manchester United have fallen in the post-Sir Alex Ferguson age, it’s Marouane Fellaini. At least, that’s according to common perception.
David Moyes only summer signing upon taking over from Fergie four years ago, the Belgian has always been considered a misfit, not just in terms of his playing style, but in a wider sense too. A club as big as Man Utd, they say, shouldn’t count a player like Fellaini among their ranks.
Indeed, he has been a target for derision from the moment he made the £27.5 million down the East Lancs Road from Everton, becoming the Premier League’s resident figure of fun. In a way, it’s understandable. There are just some players who stick out as anomalies in the otherwise orthodox professional game, and Fellaini, hair and all (until recently) is certainly one of them.
But in terms of effectiveness, there can be no doubting the big Belgian. Time and time again, he has changed games for Man Utd, just as he did on Tuesday night, scoring a late winner against Young Boys to send his team into the last 16 of the Champions League. Just a few weeks before that, he came off the bench to alter the course of United’s away clash with Juventus, acting as the catalyst for an astonishing comeback.
And yet none of this seems to matter in the public perception of Fellaini. There’s something distinctly Crouchian about the 31-year-old, but while Peter Crouch is revered, albeit with the odd prod of good-natured fun, Fellaini prompts nothing but ridicule from the masses.
This is a player who helped Belgium reach the semi finals of the World Cup in the summer, a player who has now made well over 100 appearances for Manchester United. Fellaini is one of the few players Mourinho can currently claim to be getting the most out of at Old Trafford, one of the few playing at his full potential… so when will he get the credit he deserves?
When Maradona gets to know that Fellaini has as many goals in Europe as him . pic.twitter.com/7MNZJDJFp7
— Vinay (@SemperFiUtd) November 27, 2018
“The manager has given me a lot of confidence,” Fellaini explained recently, shining a light on his relationship with Mourinho. “He trusts me. That is important for a player and I try to give it back and repay him on the pitch.
I give everything for him, I feel comfortable and I am happy with him.
Of course, much of the derision comes from the influence Fellaini tends to have on those around him whenever he is on the pitch. United boast the talent to play a fast and furious, attacking game, the kind the club became renowned for over the decades, but with Fellaini selected that inherent threat is blunted.
But nobody can deny the impact Fellaini can have late on games, and this is where Mourinho deserves to be given some slack. Jurgen Klopp and Pep Guardiola might not revert to long balls when in search of a late equaliser or winner, but they are the exception, not Mourinho.
Plenty teams revert to such tactics when desperate. United under Ferguson, when late comebacks were almost expected, played this way when it was required – their two late goals in the 1999 Champions League came from corner kicks into the box.
In Fellaini, Mourinho has the perfect player to ensure this ploy works, as it did against Young Boys on Tuesday night.
Ironically, it could be pointed that Moyes – or at least a signing of Moyes’ – is currently keeping Mourinho in a job.
Mourinho would in turn argue that he is the only United manager to have figured out how to use the Belgian.
It’s true that Fellaini might not have commanded such influence had he been at Old Trafford in times of great success under Ferguson. He probably isn’y good enough to take Manchester United back to the top, but as an option he has proved himself many times over. Maybe one day he’ll get credit for that.