The sight of Paul Pogba – formerly the world’s most expensive footballer – lying prone on the Old Trafford turf and having to leave the game early upon his first Champions League clash as Manchester United captain was a sad sight.
For Jose Mourinho, it will undoubtedly have been a blow, and the length of his recovery will be a concern. But it’s hard to escape the feeling that the United coach would rather see Pogba hobble off than Marouane Fellaini, whose injury saw him miss the 2-2 draw with Stoke at the weekend and prompted his manager to proclaim that he “feels weaker” without the Belgian in the side.
That was once again in evidence on Tuesday night as United overcame Basel in Mourinho’s first taste of Champions League action in the home dugout at Old Trafford: the early injury to Pogba forced Fellaini into a speedier return than was envisaged, even though Michael Carrick was also on the bench, but his opening goal settled nerves before his cross was finally tucked home by Marcus Rashford for United’s third and final goal.
Fellaini isn’t always a starter for Mourinho. He’s often a plan B, and an effective one at that. Ashley Young’s cross for the Belgian midfielder led to the opening goal, and whilst the cross should draw plaudits, Fellaini’s dominance in the air even around the six-yard box was impressive.
And perhaps that tells you what you need to know about Fellaini’s special place in Mourinho’s heart. It’s not that he’s simply an effective player, but when you have him in your team, he’s one of the best in the game in the air. In the end, world class is world class, no matter what it’s at.
There is, of course, a delicious irony; something that rarely escapes Mourinho these days. Years of antagonising other managers over their style of play means that when he invariably does it himself, it’s easy to call hypocrisy. “Football from the 19th century” was the charge aimed at Sam Allardyce when his West Ham side beat Mourinho’s Chelsea, finding a weakness in the west London side’s aerial ability up against Andy Carroll. United’s service to Fellaini is in the same bracket.
There’s a sense in which Fellaini is a horribly under-appreciated player. The poster boy for United’s decay under David Moyes and Louis van Gaal and a monument to the floundering mediocrity suffered by a team who once ruled the world, Fellaini was derided not just by onlookers baffled at United’s fall from grace, but also his own fans. And yet, despite the fact that the Belgian is at his most effective when the ball is in the air, if you’re going to have him in your team, you really have to accept that he has a very specific set of skills.
Lumping the ball to the big man is a tried and trusted tactic, and even managerial luminaries like Giovanni Trapattoni and Sepp Herberger subscribed to a mantra of “the ball is round”. The implication is that football is unpredictable. And when you play a high ball to Fellaini, you’re going to cause confusion whatever happens.
The problem is not about whether United can win games with the Belgian in the side. He proves time and time again than he can make the difference. His effectiveness isn’t in doubt at this point. But what is worrying from a United perspective is surely his ability to be that effective all the time. The concern is over-reliance.
A giant fears only bigger giants. Brute size and strength is nullified when faced with equal force, and without Fellaini United are more susceptible to the bigger giants.
The problem is, at what point should an effective plan B become plan A? And what happens if United’s acceptable backup tactic of using Fellaini’s height and power becomes their initial plan from the start of the game?
Last night, no one on the pitch won more aerial duels than Fellaini. And if United were a team under the cosh, perhaps you could call him a release valve for the pressure. Maybe he’s even useful helping his side out defensively. And yet, this is in a game in which United had over 60% of the possession at home to a Swiss side in the Champions League group stage.
What that tells you is the worry is real. United’s approach on a night where they weren’t threatened was to play as if they were. It wasn’t a game for plan B, and more than anything else, that tells you all you need to know about Mourinho’s mindset.