So, he finally left. The tall Belgian, who unfairly became the dark symbol of the post-Alex Ferguson era at Old Trafford, finally left the building. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer gave his vote of confidence to the player towards the end of January. But it was clear Marouane Fellaini didn’t fit into the kind of football he wanted his team to play. His departure also signalled the club’s intent to turn the ship around after more than five years of questionable decisions.
Fellaini became the lightning rod of the post-Ferguson era mess at Manchester United. The Belgian fronted up gamely through successive managerial eras but never gained the love of the Manchester United fans. Towards the end, he became the embodiment of a piece of inconvenient artefact from one’s past – like a piece of creaking furniture that remains tucked in the corner of a house. It is something no one wants but very few had the nerve to throw out until someone did.
The Belgian was never a Manchester United player of the classic mould. David Moyes and Ed Woodward made some of the most horrendous transfer decisions, which the club are still paying for, in the summer of 2013. But signing Fellaini was not one of them. The midfielder shone at Everton and a move to a bigger club in England seemed natural at that time. But he was not supposed to be the only signing of the summer, made in the last minute of a panic-stricken transfer window for Manchester United. All the criticism, the vile abuse and genuine hatred directed towards him by Manchester United fans, originated on deadline day 2013. Would he have changed perceptions about him if the Woodward’s dream of signing Gareth Bale and Cesc Fabregas had been fulfilled? Probably not. But the judgements on him would have been little less harsh.
I don’t know whether history will judge Fellaini’s time at Manchester United in a kinder tone. But the Belgian deserved more credit than he actually received at Old Trafford.
One can have serious arguments against both Louis van Gaal and Jose Mourinho but both showed more trust in Fellaini than the fans. During the spring of 2015, under Van Gaal, Manchester United played some glorious football on their way to beating Liverpool, Manchester City and Tottenham in a run of games. It was some of the most watchable football they have played since Ferguson’s retirement. Guess what? Fellaini was key to that run of form.
The Belgian went on to score in cup semi-finals, started in three cup finals and negated Ajax’s press in the Europa League final by being the target man up front. He was a hell of a plan B and worked like a charm when employed in the right game.
But that was also the problem with Fellaini, he was a plan B and successive managers too easily reverted to using him when under pressure. He was a bad habit manager too easily fell back on when they lacked a more sensible plan. The feeling amongst Manchester United fans is that the Belgian’s availability stopped their side from being progressive. Let’s be honest, Jose Mourinho would never be playing that kind of football, with or without Fellaini.
But now he is gone and the fans won’t have a lightning rod to stick all the mess. Who’d they blamed?
As I mentioned earlier, Fellaini became the symbol of the post-Ferguson era atrophy. In the five years preceding Ferguson’s retirement, Manchester United won four Premier Leagues and one Champions League. In the five years since they have not even looked like winning either of the trophies. Would the story be different if Fellaini had not arrived in 2013? No. Other more talented footballers have flattered to deceive at Old Trafford and some just gave up. Angel di Maria and Radamel Falcao lasted one season at Manchester United. But it is Fellaini, who has been marked out for all the criticism.
The Belgian seemed dead and buried once Moyes was sacked in 2014. He was even jeered by a section of Old Trafford during a pre-season friendly at the start of Van Gaal’s reign. Yet, Fellaini fought against the odds and some of his 22 goals were the most important in the post-Ferguson era.
He was not the midfielder Manchester United needed 2013. He neither had the poise on the ball nor the ability to break through the lines. He was at his best in an Everton shirt went used as an auxiliary number 10 or a target man: someone the defenders could ping a ball to in the frontline. Fellaini played a key role as a front man for the Toffees in denting Manchester United’s failed title march in a late-season game in 2012.
Fellaini’s strength as a footballer was his awkwardness. He was notoriously difficult for defenders to handle inside the penalty box. His ability to chest the ball down with finesse made him a good target man. The Belgian was all legs and elbows and looked out of place and that was his strength. However, he lacked everything that an A-list midfielder should be: not quick enough, nimble enough, notably creative or notably defensive; He was not known for his passing, dribbling, tackling, vision, finishing or any other of the more standard qualities one expects from a quality midfielder.
Yet, somehow he managed to remain a key part of the plans of three successive Manchester United managers. But that doesn’t mean he should get more credit than he deserves for being this awkward footballer. While he played in big games and scored big goals, Fellaini had a grand total of two assists during his five-and-a-half-year stint at Manchester United. The number is not good enough for even a defensive midfielder and he wasn’t one.
The Belgian also played in some sinus-inducing games for Manchester United. He was part of the shambles against Sevilla last season. He featured in each of the four straight defeats to Wolfsburg, Norwich City, Bournemouth and Stoke in December 2015.
Like a section of Manchester United fans, yours truly remain utterly confused about Fellaini’s legacy at Old Trafford. He was not good enough to warrant a song in the terraces but he was not a disaster as some made him out to be. The awkwardly built player will remain a bit of an enigma. Fellaini might have overstayed his welcome at Manchester United but he had a genuinely fascinating career at the club. His was not a success story fans will talk about 20 years down the line.
But Fellaini’s time at Manchester United was an interesting story nonetheless.