Marouane Fellaini: a symptom not the cause
Misery, so the saying goes, loves company. If that’s the case Manchester United fans can take solace that theirs isn’t the only sporting entity being mismanaged by the Glazer family. Stateside, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers NFL franchise is going through a period of turmoil too, after firing the head coach in rather haphazard circumstances.
If anything Lovie Smith’s dismissal demonstrates that no matter the type of football, American or the beautiful game, the Glazers have a gift for bungling the sporting side of things. It’s worth a sarcastic round of applause much like the one that greeted Memphis Depay’s effort against Sheffield United in the FA Cup last weekend.
If any player encapsulates the misadventures of the Glazers’ ownership, piloted by Ed Woodward, it is Marouane Fellaini. The Belgian’s performances in red have, more often than not, been roundly and justifiably criticised. The midfielder’s latest escapade against Newcastle United on Tuesday demonstrated all of his glaring flaws. Missing gilt-edged opportunities is a habit that has been alarmingly regular throughout this season, while Fellaini lacks both the technical skills – chest control excepted – and ability to grasp the tactical requirements of what’s demanded of him, either as a midfielder or defensive midfielder.
Fellaini is not just a player short of the quality required at Old Trafford, but the footballing embodiment of the missteps taken by the club ever since Sir Alex Ferguson left the roost.
The Belgian cannot be faulted for the transfer farrago to Old Trafford. He’s not to blame for Woodward and David Moyes kicking their heels, allowing a £23.5 million buy-out clause to lapse, leaving the club overpay by £4 million. It certainly wasn’t Fellaini’s fault that United waited until the last-minute to make a concerted effort to sign him and even then that a late bid nearly came unstuck. Most of all Fellaini had the opportunity to play for United; he cannot be condemned for jumping at the chance to play for the then champions of England.
Whether Fellaini should have been presented with that prospect is a different matter entirely. But even here the big Belgian is due some sympathy. Fellaini is the symptom of a larger malaise that has engulfed the boardroom at Old Trafford. That he’s the default scapegoat owes as much to the dithering and mismanagement at United as it does to the player’s lack of quality.
Unfortunately for the Belgian he is a poster child for the club’s general approach – a player purchased without thought for a specific role. Fellaini was eventually made available and the new regime at United needed to prove a point. As a result he an the odd piece of furniture. The lampshade when United really needed a table. Now he’s a contingency, Van Gaal’s plan B – the option Moyes was too reluctant to adopt for fear of ridicule.
Fellaini will forever be the first major transfer made in the post-Ferguson era. It’s an inauspicious statement if there ever was one. Maybe it was fitting that the Belgian came on for Anderson when making his United bow against Crystal Palace. One underwhelming signing for another. It was a happier time though as the new man received a big cheer from the Old Trafford faithful and nearly capped off his first appearance with a goal.
Fast forward to January 2016 and reports are that he’s been made available for the princely sum of £24 million. Woodward and United will be lucky to receive anything close to that amount should they find a willing buyer for the fuzzy haired international.
In fits and starts Fellaini has been useful for Van Gaal. It is bizarre that Fellaini is trusted by the Dutch coach given the former’s greatest strength is causing general chaos in the opponent’s third. His style of play should be at odds with Van Gaal’s preference for complete domination of matches.
Fellaini’s most productive streak came during the six-match winning streak that saw United beat Sunderland, Newcastle United, Tottenham Hotspur, Liverpool, Aston Villa and Manchester City last season.
In that run he scored vital goals against the north London club and in the derby, whilst raising his game against the big teams. Fellaini was impressive against Spurs, Liverpool and against City where he won a personal battle with Yaya Touré.
Such was Fellaini’s form that José Mourinho devised a tactical plan to stop the midfielder from wreaking havoc against Chelsea when United visited Stamford Bridge. It was a grand compliment. And with Van Gaal’s side was struggling to secure fourth last season it was Fellaini who netted the crucial goal against Palace at Selhurst Park that effectively sealed the Champions League spot for the Dutchman’s side.
That run of form has been the exception and not the rule as United’s number 27 has regressed to the mean.
This season against CSKA Moscow in the Champions League Fellaini was greeted with chorus of boos when he was brought on for Anthony Martial. The jeers weren’t, in fairness, completely aimed at the midfielder, but an outpouring of frustration in the manager taking a seemingly retrograde step with United searching for victory. As it turned out the team did churn out a 1-0 win, but the reception was noteworthy nonetheless.
Extrapolating on the theme, it is easy to consider the jeers symbolically representing an expression of exasperation at the rudderless direction the club is heading under Van Gaal and a dysfunctional board.
Now, whenever Fellaini’s name is announced, an air of resignation hits. The moment he is brought on as a substitute the entrance is met with unenthusiastic groans. When Fellaini is withdrawn the crowd breathes a sigh of relief.
After all, Fellaini is not a United standard player – his two and a half years at the club is a testament to that observation. It’s not for lack of effort; he’s just not a fit – a squad member with a nasty streak, an option who retains his place because he implicitly follows his manager’s instructions.
Yet, no matter how much ire Fellaini attracts, he is little more than a symptom of United’s current ills. Certainly not its cause. It’s a fact that United’s supporters should not lose sight of as the season heads towards its close.