Jose Mourinho’s refusal to sanction a departure in January shows how immensely disappointed he’ll be if Marouane Fellaini leaves Manchester United on a free transfer next summer. After a revival in popularity under the Portuguese, some Red Devils supporters will be left disappointed as well. And sometimes in football, disappointment can turn into fury or at the very least an underlying sense of resentment – the idea of an important player turning his back on the club over the issue of wages inevitably doesn’t sit well with the die-hards.
Yet, supporters can have no genuine complaints should the Belgium international decide to move on next summer. Despite the criticism he’s relentlessly received, despite the perception of him being the poster-boy of the attritionalisation of United’s style of play over the last four years, few players have sacrificed as much as Fellaini to be a part of the post-Ferguson era.
In fact, Fellaini’s first sacrifice came before he was officially made a United player; wavering a £4million loyalty bonus owed to him by Everton to secure a transfer to Old Trafford on summer Deadline Day 2013.
But more significantly than money, Fellaini has given up what are theoretically the peak seasons of his career, arriving at Old Trafford as a 26-year-old, to be little more than a squad player for the Red Devils – accepting his unique traits will only be applicable to certain scenarios and inevitably limit his chances of holding down a regular starting berth.
Regardless, Fellaini has never moaned or complained; he’s done, quite simply, what every Manchester United manager since Sir Alex Ferguson has asked of him – whether it’s to knock down long balls in the final third, fight and scrap at the base of midfield or provide gangly dynamism in between.
And there’s something to be said for the fact that every United manager Fellaini has played under has turned to him in times of need. Even Louis van Gaal, a manager whose entire philosophy centred around the technical quality to retain possession to a frustratingly laborious degree, depended on Fellaini to inject aggression, physicality and goal threat into his often-rudderless sides.
Without Fellaini’s six Premier League goals during 2014/15, three of which were game-winning goals and one of which was an outright winner against Crystal Palace, the Dutchman may not have even survived his first season with the Red Devils. It certainly would have put their Champions League qualification in jeopardy.
In many ways, that encapsulates the paradox of an idiosyncratic talent like Fellaini becoming such an unexpectedly influential figure at a club like Manchester United, famed for their exuberance and attacking flair. While the towering midfielder may pale in comparison technically and intellectually to the man he immediately succeeded in United’s midfield, the legendary Paul Scholes, he’s a world-class executor of the very specific strengths of his own game; most particularly aerial dominance in both boxes.
There are few players in world football, and even fewer at clubs of Manchester United’s magnitude, who can turn hopeful hoofs forward into something more significant and substantial with the same consistency. Fellaini, whether you love or loathe him, is undoubtedly a rare breed in the modern game.
In that sense, Fellaini has clearly been an under-valued and under-appreciated figure for the vast majority of his United career. Only this season has it truly felt as if the lion’s share of United support have warmed to the Belgian, and even that acceptance came six months after some Red Devils supporters booed him for simply warming up following a costly mistake against former club Everton the weekend prior.
Most of his United tenure has attracted scoffs and groans for largely superficial reasons; association with David Moyes and subsequently styles of play that have inevitably failed to match the entertaining glamour of the affluent Ferguson years.
“He’s a very important player for me. Much more important than you can imagine. I feel weaker without Fellaini in my squad. It doesn’t matter if he’s on the pitch or bench. So if his condition improves he’ll be selected.”
Fellaini may now be a considerably more important player, one Mourinho claims he ‘feels weaker’ without, in comparison last season and that may well be recognised more by the Old Trafford doubters who once jeered his very name.
But the simple fact is that Fellaini’s given everything to support United during their most difficult and turbulent era since the 1970s – his best years and at times his reputation – with incredibly sparing gratitude or reward. If Fellaini decides to leave that all behind next summer for a new chapter in his career, no United supporter can justifiably hold a grudge.
After such servitude, Fellaini deserves to find a home where he’s truly loved.