“It’s easier for Galatasaray to get me than Marouane,” said Jose Mourinho last month. “If they need a manager, they can try and have a chance, but Marouane? Forget it. He’s too important for me.”
The words may have been spoken with tongue inserted in cheek – its natural resting place in Mourinho’s mouth – but there was no laughter to accompany the dismissal of yet another transfer rumour. Manchester United’s manager was deadly serious: Marouane Fellaini was staying put.
If supporters still needed persuading on that point, further evidence came after defeat to Real Madrid in the UEFA Super Cup, with Mourinho making a point of praising Fellaini: “The group is fantastic and Marouane is just an example of that group, of that spirit we have.” The article on Manchester United’s official site headlined ‘HOW FELLAINI CHANGED THE GAME’ may have concluded with a line of clarification that it did not necessarily reflect the views of the club, but the manager is certainly on board.
There have been times when using Fellaini as the illustration of any shared Manchester United experience would not have been a compliment. In 2013 he was the personification of the club’s transfer incompetence. In 2014 he was the personification of their decline under David Moyes. In 2015 he started just 16 league games. Few envisaged that the Belgian could still be persona grata at Old Trafford in 2017.
Yet in many ways Fellaini was United’s personification again last season. For all the money spent, Manchester United’s success in 2016/17 was achieved through emphatic pragmatism. They scored ten goals in their last eight Europa league knock-out matches and managed more than two goals in only seven of their 38 league matches; the average of the five teams above them was 13.6. Supporters who rejoiced in the eventual moments of triumph regularly watched through their fingers and with gritted teeth.
Looking at Manchester United’s options in midfield on the eve of another league season, it is hard to imagine that Fellaini will get many chances. Yet we have been here before. At the start of Mourinho’s first season, Fellaini, Ander Herrera, Paul Pogba, Michael Carrick, Wayne Rooney, Morgan Schneiderlin and Bastian Schweinsteiger were effectively competing for a maximum of three midfield spots. Fellaini promptly increased his Premier League minutes from 1,068 in 2015/16 to 1,599 in 2016/17 and started seven Europa League matches.
There have been times when Fellaini’s pragmatic style has crossed the line; earthy is a mere step from agricultural. Against Watford last September, he committed five fouls, was shown a yellow card and generally hampered Manchester United’s performance as they lost 3-1 at Vicarage Road. No regular Manchester United first-team player commits fouls more often, and none are booked as often either. A line from that aforementioned piece on United’s official site claims that Fellaini ‘can upset any defence in the world’, and there have been occasions when United have been towards the top of that list.
But it would be unreasonable not to acknowledge Fellaini’s positive impact too. By the end of last season, no Manchester United player had made tackles more often. All of the nine Premier League regulars (more than 500 minutes played) who won aerial duels more often last season were strikers; Zlatan Ibrahimovic was not one.
Nemanja Matic may have arrived from Chelsea, much to Antonio Conte’s chagrin, but Carrick will play less often and Schneiderlin, Schweinsteiger and Rooney have all moved on. Fellaini is still shining that apple and handing it to the teacher.
At a club for whom the ‘United way’ is still a valuable, if rather ethereal, concept, Fellaini’s brutalist style jars against expectation and thus makes him an obvious scapegoat. Nobody at Manchester United is expecting him to start every – or even the majority of – league games, but in the age of multi-purpose, multi-functional, multi-position footballers, Fellaini is the opposite. Mourinho appreciates him for, rather than in spite, of that fact.
Need a substitute to come on and break up play? He’s there. Require a direct approach in the last 15 minutes when searching for a goal? Call the big man. Fellaini is useful to Mourinho because he is the perfect pragmatist’s tool. Who needs a Swiss Army Knife when you’re trying to break down a door?
Daniel Storey – Please do a lovely thing and buy Daniel’s Portrait of an Icon book here. Proceeds go to the wonderful Sir Bobby Robson Foundation. If even 1% of you buy it…