Oct 2, 2017
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How Marouane Fellaini has become an important player at Manchester United

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Marouane Fellaini has been widely criticised during his spell at Manchester United, but he has found his niche under Jose Mourinho and delivered another impressive display against Crystal Palace. The Belgian midfielder scored twice as the team continued their excellent start to the season with another victory.

It was a superb showing from the 29-year-old across all areas of the pitch. His aerial presence caused real problems for Crystal Palace, leading to two goals for him. These gave United a dominant lead in the match and put the result beyond doubt with plenty of time left to spare. In addition to his two goals, he won three aerial duels and completed seven ball recoveries.

Since he joined United, his passing has been seen as a weak point in his game, but he ended Saturday’s match with a 90% pass success rate from 52 passes, including one key pass. The Belgian has become a lot more intelligent in possession and knows what his limits. He isn’t going to be a player that cuts open defences often, which is why he often opts for the simple pass to team-mate. This has been an encouraging part of his own development during the last 12 months.

There was a time when United fans feared the worst when they saw Fellaini’s name on the team-sheet and that was somewhat unfair. It would be wrong to suggest there aren’t limitations to his game, but if he is utilised correctly, he can thrive at the highest level. Although he had worked with him at Everton, David Moyes struggled to get the best out of him, while Louis van Gaal’s system didn’t play to the midfielder’s strengths.

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There has been a rebirth under Jose Mourinho and he is now proving himself as being good enough for a team challenging for the title. The midfielder wouldn’t be able to fit into all of the top-six teams, as he can only thrive in a system that is geared to his strengths. Pep Guardiola and Jurgen Klopp would struggle to use the Belgian international effectively as their styles of play suit certain types of players.

However, Mourinho is pragmatic and is very good at utilising what he has at his disposal. There are some that doubt whether the United boss remains one of the best in the world, but his management of the Belgian midfielder is a reminder of the tactical mind that he possesses. He knows how to win football matches and he realises the worth of having a tactical weapon like Fellaini.

Why was he viewed as a bad player for Manchester United?

The Belgian midfielder arrived at Old Trafford in 2013 for a fee of £27.5 million and was the only major addition of David Moyes’ first transfer window as manager. It was a huge show of faith from the Scotsman as he wanted Fellaini to follow him from Everton and he admitted afterwards that the lack of other additions made it difficult for the player in an interview with the Express:

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“It was a big move for him, it was a big move following me and being the only signing made it even more difficult,”

“We wanted to bring in other players and the recruitment didn’t work the way we wanted it to and, ideally, we wouldn’t have made Fellaini our one and only signing if we could have helped it.”

It is clear that Moyes was a big fan of Fellaini and although the former Everton manager failed at Old Trafford, the Belgian midfielder will forever be thankful for his contribution to his career. The 29-year-old wasn’t helped by his former manager’s failure as he was tarred with the same brush, which was unfair at the time.

United had an ageing squad that lacked world class quality and were performing above themselves under Sir Alex Ferguson. In reality, they needed a complete overhaul during that summer, but only Fallini arrived. During his first season, he featured 16 times in the Premier League and was underwhelming for a lot of those performances.

He was expected to play as a ball-winning midfielder. Although he is good at regaining possession, he doesn’t have the mobility to operate as a destroyer in the middle of the park. Fellaini needs to play alongside the right player to thrive and that is why he wasn’t great over the course of his first campaign as a United player.

Under Louis van Gaal, he did improve and deliver some good performances. At one point, the Dutchman labelled the midfielder as undroppable. However, there was inconsistency to his game and the slow possession style that the team were playing didn’t suit him. There were times when Fellaini looked to be clumsy when the team were out of possession and discipline was an issue.

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What has changed?

Fellaini is only effective when the overall team system suits him and there are fewer who are better at setting up a team than Jose Mourinho. The midfielder is a tactical weapon and a great option to have, especially in big matches. A lot of top teams look to play a high-pressing style and Fellaini is a great way to counter such a system.

His aerial ability means that he can be relied on to win the majority of long balls and United have often opted to play long-balls to bypass a pressing team. The array of mobile midfielders then try to win the second balls and counter with pace. Fellaini is at his best when he is given license to get into advanced positions. Mourinho has noted this and the midfielder’s growing influence is an encouraging sign for their title chances.

They aren’t going to out pass Manchester City, but they can beat them and Mourinho sees Fellaini as a crucial part of his plans. Fellaini may not have been a player that a lot of United fans wanted to have as part of the squad, but he is now proving his worth and has a massive role to play over the coming campaign.

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Jake Jackman

Jake is a student based in the South East. He is a Newcastle fan and has a keen interest in Dutch football. Jake can be found on Twitter here - @jakejackmann.