What is Marouane Fellaini? How can one best define him? Footballers tend to follow either one template or another with individual variations, but the Premier League has never witnessed a player quite like the Belgium international before.
He does things that I previously thought unimaginable – controlling the ball perfectly with his chest while leaping a good few feet into the air being one of them. Another being flicking the ball on, equally as flawlessly, with his hair alone. And yet for every strength Fellaini appears to possess – the ability to regularly find the net, an imposing 6 foot 4 frame, rugged aerial ability – there is equally a juxtaposing flaw.
Upon bringing him to Old Trafford, David Moyes apparently saw the 26 year-old as Manchester United’s new No.8, a box-to-box, goalscoring midfielder of the Frank Lampard mould. Fellaini doesn’t have quite enough mobility for that, or the intelligence on the ball.
Rather, his best displays at Everton were sitting behind the striker, a role that saw the Belgian lankster claim eleven goals and five assists during his ultimate campaign at Goodison. Yet to describe Fellaini as a genuine No.10 feels almost insulting to the other attacking midfielders in the Premier League. Moving away from its scoring and providing roots slightly, in the English top flight at least, that role has become more about retaining possession and producing the quality to unlock opposition defences – something which, in a traditional sense, the Manchester United midfielder is not capable of.
Alternatively, his gangly limbs and 6 foot 4 frame suggest a midfield anchor – a position he took up for the Toffees on select occasions against high quality opposition. But once again, Fellaini lacks vital attributes for the play-breaking role, most notably discipline, consistency on the ball and positional awareness. In that role, he’s little more than an exceptionally large human shield for the back four; there’s a lot of hustle and bustle, but no genuine thought process to his actions.
So what is Fellaini? Or is it time to agree that as a footballer, although possessing certain unique strengths, he remains fatally flawed?
Well, perhaps he is in fact a misunderstood genius, breaking the mould of the beautiful game’s conventional understandings. Perhaps he is the English top flight’s first anti-10; unlike his many diminutive Premier League counterparts, such as David Silva, Juan Mata, Oscar and Philippe Coutinho to name a few, who rely upon their technical qualities and invention, Fellaini has the same effect but with a battering ram approach – asserting his menacing physicality onto the opposition to subsequently create space and opportunities for his team-mates.
A comparison with Emile Heskey comes to mind, England’s ‘enabler’ that occupied defenders, with lukewarm effect, for Michael Owen to earn the plaudits. But Fellaini is undoubtedly of a higher standard, regardless of his tribulations last season.
What the Belgium international needs most is appreciation, a manager who can facilitate for his subliminal genius. Perhaps vulgar and unorthodox in style, but unquestionably his best position remains between the attack and midfield. Rather than the imposing defensive midfielder he’s often been billed as in England, whilst a youngster in the Anderlecht youth system, Fellaini often netted in excess of 20 goals per season.
Of course, the prevailing dilemma is that accepting Fellaini as your no.10 obliges a certain kind of philosophy. To say attritional would unjustifiably suggest a sinister brand of football, but to get the best out of the 6 foot 4 monolith he must be served by a direct style of play that allows him to physically compete with opposing defenders.
But Manchester United, and the vast majority of clubs regularly involved in European football, aren’t interested in that kind of thing, and admittedly, to pin your entire attacking hopes on – or at least strongly centralise them around – Fellaini seems like a rather risky strategy. The Red Devils particularly already have a wealth of No.10s, something Louis van Gaal has recently complained about. He tallies the squad as having four – Wayne Rooney, Juan Mata, Shinji Kagawa and Adnan Januzaj – and that’s not even including the Belgian beast.
Indeed, for Fellaini’s accidental genius and uniqueness to be truly understood, a move away from Old Trafford this summer is essential. But perhaps in that context, he is a genius flawed. Although he verges upon indefinable in his complexity, as if there is in fact no complexity at all, as a footballer, as the Premier League’s original anti-10, there will always be a glass ceiling above him.
Perhaps over the course of the next few decades, as football continues to evolve into new directions, we will come to realise that the Manchester United misfit was in fact a revolutionary, unfortunately before his time.