Of the many disappointing aspects of David Moyes’ tenure as Manchester United manager, one of the greatest was the contribution of Marouane Fellaini. The Belgium international followed Moyes from Everton but his performances were so lifeless it wasn’t expected he’d last much longer at Old Trafford than his mentor, sacked in April. That the transfer window closed with Fellaini still at the club was a major surprise.
It was thought that the ankle injury Fellaini suffered early in the season had in part saved his United future. On big wages and likely to command a hefty transfer fee, clubs were wary of moving for the gargantuan ex-Toffee to begin with, even before it became clear he’d struggle to pass a medical. Fellaini made an appearance as a substitute in Louis van Gaal’s first Premier League game in charge, the home defeat to Swansea City, and was then sidelined until the start of October.
Upon his return and Fellaini is starting to justify the £27m Moyes paid to his former club for the midfielder’s services. His last full season at Everton brought 12 goals in 36 games, making him Everton’s top scorer and winning as many EuroFantasyLeague
Fellaini bulk is often what draws most comment – that and his hair. He has been criticised for his flailing elbows and lack of speed but to characterise Fellaini as a lead-footed foul-merchant is to miss a huge part of his game. Fellaini’s chest control has been lauded before and his touch with his feet is often excellent too. And his Everton goals weren’t only the result of being borderline unbeatable in the air – witness the left-footed drive from the edge of the box against Arsenal in November 2012 for proof.
He arrived as Everton’s record signing under the guise of a defensive midfielder. Performances were mixed and injuries meant he was thrust further forward, having chipped in with some useful goals even from a deeper position. Fellaini eventually flourished when played behind the striker and, despite some decent performances in his preferred role, was from then on thought of as an attacking player by all at Goodison Park.
It means his role at United has never been defined. Moyes would have known Fellaini was at his best when supporting a striker – he was the manager who put him there in the first place – but upon taking over from Sir Alex Ferguson, found a squad heavy on attacking talent and light on midfield depth. United needed a protector in defence and Fellaini wasn’t it – but he couldn’t be a second striker either, with Wayne Rooney and Robin van Persie both wanting that role too.
Moyes never figured out how best to accommodate Fellaini, Rooney and van Persie, and it was only more muddled when Juan Mata arrived. Van Gaal, with no past ties to Fellaini and no preconceptions about his best position, can look at the 26-year-old with fresh eyes. That, and a fresh start, may be exactly what Fellaini needs. Fellaini was instrumental in salvaging draws against West Brom and Chelsea as he and United make small steps towards recovering past glory.
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