Marouane Fellaini came to epitomise everything that went wrong at Old Trafford last season.
His cumbersome, attritional nature symbolised the negative philosophy Manchester United adopted under David Moyes, just as his £28million transfer fee agreed on deadline day – £6million more than the release clause United had bizarrely allowed to expire a fortnight earlier – symbolised Ed Woodward’s failure to attract top talent to the club during summer 2013.
Drafted in from Moyes’ former club and the only player in the entire squad the Scot had selected rather than inherited, until Juan Mata’s arrival in January, Fellaini’s lanky build and bumbling bel-fro was the demonic face of United’s so-called ‘Evertonisation’ under their former manager – the theory that Moyes’ recruitment, tactics and ideas had somehow transformed United from world leaders into a small, ordinary club.
The 26-year-old came close to leaving Carrington during the summer – there’s no doubt about that. Certainly not a natural suitor to Louis van Gaal’s technically-demanding style, the papers claim the Dutchman spent much of the transfer window trying to offload Fellaini to either Fiorentina or Napoli. It’s likely the Serie A switch or another move abroad would have come intro fruition if the midfielder hadn’t picked up a leg injury in late August.
But solutions in football often come from the most unlikely of sources, and Louis van Gaal may have found one in a player he was prepared to throw on the scrapheap just a matter of months ago.
Following impressive displays against West Brom – in which Fellaini netted just moments after coming on at the interval – and Chelsea – where he went toe-to-toe with Cesc Fabregas – the much-maligned midfielder may now have a vital role to play in van Gaal’s opening campaign at Old Trafford.
The performance against West Brom demonstrated something important about Fellaini. Firstly, a reminder that he can score goals – the trademark he became famed for at Everton after netting eleven times in his ultimate season.
Amalgamating cricket scores through United’s incredible cast of expensively-assembled attacking talent, the Gaalactios, appears to be at the heart of van Gaal’s game-plan this season, and the 26 year-old proved against the Baggies that he’s capable of contributing too. In fact, he’s bagged the same amount of goals – in 90 less minutes – as Radamel Falcao this season.
But secondly and most importantly, that the 6 foot 4 Belgian’s height and power can be an intrinsic asset for any Premier League side, especially when battling against those at the less flattering end of the table. Van Gaal’s already admitted certain aspects of the English game have caught him by surprise – the pace, the power, the intensity, the constant pressure on the ball – and that’s reflected in United’s summer transfer policy.
Indeed, of United’s £150million spent, only one arrival, Luke Shaw, came with Premier League experience, whilst Marcos Rojo constituted the only signing that measures in at above 6 foot. Even Daley Blind is just 5 foot 11 and, likewise to fellow summer addition Ander Herrera, worryingly slender when compared to the brawn and tenacity anchoring other Premier League midfields.
That diversity is why Fellaini could prove so important for United between now and the end of the season. A physique almost tailor-made for the challenges of Premier League football, his simple-yet-effective battering ram approach compliments and protects the more eccentric foreign talents surrounding him.
Admittedly, he’s not the only United midfielder that offers something quintessentially Premier League when compared to the club’s summer signings. Darren Fletcher, albeit far from the player he once was, remains on the roster, whilst veteran Michael Carrick is expected to return to first team action in the coming weeks.
But the Red Devils’ poorest results this season have come against their weakest opposition; the 4-0 drubbing by MK Dons in the Capital One Cup, the 5-3 comeback by Leicester City, the scoreless draw against top flight whipping boys Burnley. Whilst Carrick and Fletcher can both offer the midfield a more solid base, the former particularly a better fit for LVG’s technical ethos, Fellaini’s strength and aerial ability can impact at both ends of the pitch – an ugly, direct plan B for when the Champaign-footy isn’t quite paying off.
Van Gaal’s underestimated the Premier League in some respects and until now, Marouane Fellaini too. The Belgian international is almost the antithesis of a van Gaal player, but a necessity all the same in a squad assembled, perhaps naively, without the characteristics of the English game in mind.
I do not expect Fellaini to become a United icon, either in cult or popular terms. I don’t particularly expect him to be at the club next season, especially with the Red Devils seemingly planning the next two transfer windows to be as lucrative as the last.
But amid an inaugural campaign in which LVG’s learning as much about the Premier League as it is him, the services of a Premier League-proven midfielder, purpose-built for the unique, physical quirks of the English game, could be the difference between fourth and fifth.
And after his impressive form over the last week, Fellaini looks a dead-cert to feature against Manchester City and Arsenal – two coming fixtures that will define United’s season.