Like his manager, Marouane Fellaini may split opinion. But, also just like his manager, he is a man that does a job and gets results. It may not be pretty, more often than not it’s ugly, but it more often than not it works.
Whilst that also describes Jose Mourinho’s managerial career to a T, it can also be applied just as aptly to one of his most trusted lieutenants in Fellaini. In Fellaini, Mourinho sees an asset who can break an opponent’s rhythm, ask awkward questions, and so materially help get the job of winning done. In a typical Mourinho manner, he does not care what others may think.
A man and a footballer who mysteriously remains Old Trafford’s great survivor and Manchester United’s ultimate enigma. It’s unfathomable to think that is his sixth season at the club. Even more so when you look at some of the far greater talents that have come and gone through the revolving door in that time.
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Fellaini, fresh from signing a new contract in the summer, made his first start of the season at Burnley and impressed in a rejigged midfield alongside Paul Pogba and Nemanja Matic. This was Fellaini at his irritating best: starting attacks, winning everything, linking the play and getting stuck in – he was a contender for man of the match and showed why Mourinho was so desperate to keep hold of him. He came on at Brighton and toiled in vain as his team-mates struggled, winning the late penalty from which Pogba scored.
If there is one player who has come to symbolise Manchester United’s identity crisis in the post Sir Alex Ferguson landscape, it is Fellaini.
Plenty of United supporters have never accepted him and never will, a jarring reminder of a time when a Scot who has subsequently managed Real Sociedad, Sunderland and West Ham United was at the helm for 10 calamitous months – a man who still has one year remaining on his original United deal, a man that set the catalyst for what was to follow when he made Fellaini his marquee signing in his sole summer in charge. Unfairly or not, from the day he signed he came with a stigma associated with the ill-fated brutality of the David Moyes era – a stigma that will forever be impossible to get rid of.
Others have tried manfully to give Fellaini the benefit of the doubt but still struggle with the concept of such an awkward, incongruous footballer, better known for his elbows than quick feet, gracing a team that has historically been associated with fast, fluent football. The Belgian is – and always has been – a divisive, indeed derided, figure at United. There can be no denying that he has provided some monumental, match-winning moments during his time at the club. He scored the decisive goal in a Europa League semi-final and bossed the midfield in the subsequent final, he’s bullied Liverpool, shot down the Gunners and KO’d City in a demolition derby. Ander Herrera may have got the nod for man of the match in that Europa League final with Ajax, but Fellaini was immense.
There can be no denying that he offers us something no one else in the squad can and that, on his day, he is the Premier League’s most destructive Plan B. Yet for every seismic intervention from the unmistakable head of the burly Belgian, there continues to be the unshakeable feeling that Fellaini is an unpalatable enigma who is simply not good enough to ply his trade in the red of United. His is a rudimentary and unconventional talent not akin to the ethos and ideology of our club.
Yet three managers – from David Moyes, to Louis van Gaal to Mourinho, have trusted him implicitly and stuck with him when others may have lost patience. For all his best moments, there have been just as many instances of Fellaini at his worst. From the head-butt on Sergio Aguero to giving away that needless penalty shortly after he came on at Everton, Fellaini has even endured the ignominy of being booed by sections of the Old Trafford crowd. Whatever you think of him, to boo one of our own is inexcusable. His relationship with the United fans hit rock bottom nadir that night, but to his credit he has worked hard to revive his fortunes to a point where we no longer have to hide our eyes in fear whenever he’s on the ball.
Yet it’s all part of the unique and unfathomable puzzle that is Fellaini, a player who brings us delight and despair in equal measure, a man with undoubtedly the best chest in world football. A player who truly does resemble Manchester United’s most unlikely survivor.