Marouane Fellaini: Down but not out

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Spanish newspaper AS’s decision not to give Marouane Fellaini a rating following Tuesday’s game withBayern Munich was undoubtedly a slightly snide publicity stunt yet the Belgian’s ineffectual performance is quickly becoming symbolic; a tall, microphone-headed indictment of David Moyes’ disheartening first season at the club.

Tuesday’s game was undoubtedly one of Fellaini’s least accomplished so far in a red shirt. The match was a culmination of all the conditions under which he has struggled: a vital game against the strongest of opposition, boasting a midfield characterised by its fast movement and incisive passing, under the pressure of a home crowd under the floodlights at Old Trafford.

And to the stadium’s grim lack of surprise, he once again failed to put in the performance he was purchased for £27.5 million to provide. When he did manage to catch up with play, his contributions were dire: his first touch was heavy, his passing unadventurous and slow paced. He seemed to require three touches to do what each Bayern midfielder could comfortably achieve in one.

His aerial prowess – one of his supposed strengths – was exposed repeatedly, with the Belgian losing three challenges in the air to all 5″10 of David Alaba and once to Rafinha, who stands a further three inches shorter. Meanwhile, videos of his 40 yard sprint straight out of play spread across Twitter almost instantly.

To compound matters, he was at fault for Bayern’s goal. Jogging back to admire Mario Mandzukic’s clever knock-down, he neglected to track the onrushing Bastian Schweinsteiger, who easily got in front of the Belgian to guide home an accomplished finish on the half volley. It was a telling microcosm of his performance on the night and throughout his Old Trafford career to date: off the pace, lethargic, and shown up in terms of temperament, composure and technical ability by his opposite number.

In theory, he is the one player who should have responded most effectively to the presence of David Moyes at Old Trafford having thrived under the same manager at Everton. Yet his struggle to adapt to the demands of a club of size of United’s stature has been highly uncomfortable to watch. His stats make for bleak reading: he’s scored no goals and made no assists in 14 appearances.

When the game seems beyond him, he resorts to slow jogging and the occasional shin hack whilst on the ball he has appeared awkward and inelegant. His application levels have dropped off majorly, a seemingly self-conscious reaction to his poor performances; a petulant, ‘if I don’t try, I can’t make any mistakes’ kind of attitude.

His showing against Munich came a week after he had been lucky not to be banned for spitting on Paolo Zabaleta, an incident which had also seen him escape a red card for brutally elbowing the Manchester City fullback. Fellaini’s game has always been characterised by his aggression – witness his amusing lengthy battle with Stoke City’s Ryan Shawcross during anEverton fixture last year – but his poor disciplinary record is now creeping into his game without being balanced out by any skilful end product.

There are, though, some mitigating factors which must be taken into account. Fellaini has often been paired alongside Michael Carrick, a slow and immobile player at the best of times who is currently in the closing stages of his worst season in a red shirt. Paired together, the unhurried duo is asking to be cut apart by pace. After all, perhaps Fellaini’s best performance for United came against West Ham when he was paired with the combative and energetic Darren Fletcher in the middle of midfield.

He can also hardly be blamed for the size of his perhaps burdensome transfer fee. As has been well documented, a more professional and organised bidding process for the big Belgian could have resulted in him being picked up for the not insignificantly cheaper price of £22 million. Instead, the combined incompetence of Ed Woodward and David Moyesdelayed their move until after the buyout clause in his contract had expired. In a similar way to Andy Carroll or Fernando Torres, Fellaini may be struggling to cope with the weight of his hefty transfer fee. He’s clearly not worth £27.5 million but only has those above him to blame for that added pressure.

In a season in which he has suffered badly with injuries, it is also unfair to make him the definitive scapegoat for his club’s repeatedly dreadful showings this term. On Tuesday, for example, Fellaini’s display – and, undoubtedly, his hair – shifted attention from Ryan Giggs who, for all the intelligent rhetoric he has wheeled out in the press of late, was totally invisible before injury apparently forced him off at half time.

Manchester United fans are more aware than most of Fellaini’s ability having been on the receiving end of a masterclass in forward play from the Belgian in their home game against Everton last season. Fellaini scored 12 goals and created seven for the Toffees last year with his former Evertonteammate Michael Arteta claiming that Fellaini was unplayable in an advanced role. Quality players – with the possible exception of Torres – do not lose their ability overnight. He may perhaps still be deserving of the benefit of the doubt.

Fellaini may yet have much to offer. A combative and strong midfielder of extreme nuisance value when on form, he in theory has much to offer a United midfield which has often been guilty of a depressing meekness this season. A few of his stats are not disastrous: his pass success rate has improved from last season, up from 79.3 percent to 88.1 and he has made more tackles (2.6 to 2.8) and more interceptions (1.2 to 2.1), mainly due to the deeper role he has been asked to play. Yet United need to see him play with more adventure, ambition and – most importantly –the swagger which made him such an impressive success at Goodison Park.

It is worrying that Fellaini’s has failed to thrive despite Juan Mata’s arrival alleviating the pressure of him being Moyes’ only signing to date. He also has worrying rabbit-in-the-headlights form at Old Trafford, perhaps proof enough that he may never possess the mentality to ever succeed at the club.

Yet, for now, he deserves a bit more time. Fellaini has every reason to want to prove his doubters wrong, especially in a World Cup year when his place at the heart of the Belgium midfield is increasingly coming under threat. With United enjoying a relatively simple run in over the next few months, now is a moment to support the big Belgian instead of definitively condemning his prospects.

Originally published on The Peoples Person.

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