You can almost imagine it now – Louis van Gaal in his Aon Training Complex office, half-chucking half-spluttering on a freshly lit cigar, quipping to Manchester United’s equivalent of B.A. Baracus; “I love it when a plan comes together… don’t you, Marouane?”
Indeed, Manchester United’s game plan has finally come together and vitally at the most crucial point of the season, their 3-0 win against Tottenham last weekend and 2-1 victory at Anfield on Sunday severing the north Londoners and Liverpool from the rest of the pack in the race for Champions League qualification. They’re now six and five points behind fourth-place United respectively, with just eight games remaining.
Bizarrely however, it’s not the game plan the press, the public and the pundits envisaged when Louis van Gaal was first appointed Old Trafford gaffer last summer. Far from the philosophy of free flowing, attacking football the Dutchman once insinuated and his reputation as a La-Liga-winning former Barcelona manager suggested, it was United’s unique brand of laboriously direct yet precise and predatory play that overawed Liverpool and Spurs, two far more fluid sides, during the last fortnight.
And an intrinsic factor in that controversial, often unexciting style has been Marouane Fellaini; a 6 foot 4 ball of hair, headers and elbows, clumsily yet effectively domineering in both penalty boxes for the Red Devils. The Belgium international netted United’s first against Spurs, a deft finish into Hugo Lloris’ side netting, whilst his influence on Sunday was somewhat more subtle, winning eleven aerial duels – twice as many as any player for either side – four tackles and creating one chance at goal.
He bobs around the 18-yard line plucking away at direct, lofted passes, and even if Fellaini fails to win a clean header, flick-on or knock-down, his sheer presence – perhaps, the audacity of his disco haircut – is enough to cause chaos and confusion amongst the opposition backline, subsequently leading to United chances.
From the fringes of a squad seemingly designed for a more technically-demanding style of football, United’s unexpected bias towards long-ball, currently averaging the third-most per-match of any Premier League side, has resulted in Fellaini becoming one of the first names on the team sheet in recent months. Garth Crooks has even dared likening the 27-year-old to Chelsea’s once formidable Didier Drogba.
Yet there’s a delicious irony here that one man, now of Real Sociedad, will particularly appreciate. A well-organised, hardworking, cautious and direct Manchester United? With £28million signing Marouane Fellaini impacting both ends of the pitch as its’ beating heart? There’s no doubt about it – this is the Manchester United David Moyes once envisaged.
It includes other Moyes signings too; alongside Fellaini is £37.5million acquisition Juan Mata, the star of the show at Anfield with a worldly brace. Likewise, although Ander Herrera – another intrinsic component on Sunday who claimed the assist for Mata’s opener, the most created chances of any United player and got Steven Gerrard sent off – officially joined Old Trafford last summer, he was a Moyes target from the year previous. Ed Woodward had worked hard on a deal with Athletic Bilbao months before van Gaal’s arrival, leaving the Dutchman to simply give his approval on a transfer already in motion.
So three of the front five that scored the goals to secure the two most important results of United’s season were Moyes additions, succeeding in a style of robust and clinical football you’d sooner associate with Moyes’ Everton than van Gaal’s Ajax, Barcelona or Bayern Munich, which makes you ponder the potential results if the Scot’s project hadn’t been cut short after just ten months.
With the financial backing and patience van Gaal’s received, would Moyes’ United also be in the top four right now? Would Fellaini, Mata and Hererra be proving equally vital? Would the Red Devil’s style of play be equal in its efficiency under the Scot?
Interesting questions, but perhaps the answers are neither here nor there. After all, there’s a tacit understanding between fan and manager at Old Trafford that the ends will justify the means this season. If United’s surprisingly Moyes-esque approach trickles into next term however, regardless of results, van Gaal could soon find himself meeting the same consequences as his predecessor.