Marouane Fellaini appeared to be headed for the exit door at Manchester United when Louis van Gaal took over. Few could have foreseen the clumsy, abrasive Belgian being a fit for his new boss’s possession based philosophy.
Even throughout the first few months of the new regime, it was difficult to see a place for Fellaini, who was primarily being used as a last resort – someone to launch long balls at when the team was struggling.
In recent weeks, however, we have seen the player develop into an integral part of United’s team. Oozing confidence and clarity in his role, the Belgian produced a man of the match performance against Spurs and followed it up with another high quality game against Liverpool.
His follow up performance – scoring twice in Belgium’s European Championship Qualifier against Cyprus – made us curious enough to investigate the curly haired giant’s remarkable turnaround in form and the reasons behind it.
The short answer appears to be that United’s coaches have come to the realisation that they cannot change the player and instead have tailored their game plan to take advantage of the things he does well. The result has brought out the best in both Fellaini and the team as a whole.
A player of undoubted qualities, but also very clear limitations, Fellaini’s first season at Manchester United was an unmitigated disaster from start to finish. Even the manner in which he was purchased – with the club paying £27.5 million on the last day of the transfer window, having previously eschewed the opportunity to sign him at a lower cost – was clumsy and unfairly opened the player up to ridicule.
His early performances were equally ungainly and the sight of him in a red jersey quickly became the symbol of David Moyes’ failed tenure.
Lost amongst this was the fact that Fellaini had previously excelled in English football, establishing himself as one of the most difficult match ups for defenders in the Premier League during his stint at Everton. Even when pundits acknowledged this, they often added the caveat; “He’s just not a United player.”
It is true that Fellaini would have had no place in the high tempo, 4-4-2 formation of the Sir Alex Ferguson era. However, he has shown this season that, when utilised correctly, he remains a valuable player. Ultimately, what is most shocking is that David Moyes – the man who should have known him best – failed so conspicuously and monumentally to get the most out of him.
As luck would have it, Fellaini has now made the same number of league appearances for United this year as he did during the entirety of last season, making it the perfect time to make an “apples to apples” comparison.
Analysis of both the statistics and his game performance reveal how both his positioning and his job description have been altered in order to get the best out of him.
In his time at Everton, Fellaini was often used high up the pitch as either a second striker or number ten. However, for the first year and a half of his United career he was regularly deployed as a central midfielder in a traditional, two man midfield. In this role he was an abject failure, lacking the speed of thought and fleetness of foot to be successful in such a position.
Watching United games regularly, Fellaini has neither the necessary range nor accuracy of passing to quickly turn defence into attack. This pass by Ander Herrera for Juan Mata’s goal is a classic example.
(Credit: Match Day 2)
Quite simply, that ball is something Fellaini doesn’t have in his locker. He couldn’t have completed it, and likely wouldn’t even have attempted it. All too often, both last season and early this season, his job was to fulfill that role. This led to a stagnant United side that failed to open up organised defences. That is no fault of his own. He has absolutely no business being used this way, and both Moyes and to a lesser extent Louis van Gaal deserve criticism for setting him up to fail.
In recent times, his role has clearly changed under van Gaal. He now primarily lines up as the most advanced of a midfield three for United, usually on the left hand side, with a holding midfielder behind and the energetic Herrera across from him. Being pushed further forward has allowed him to sit in pockets of space between the right centre half and right back, causing difficulties both with his height and for defenders deciding who should pick him up.
In the video of his performance against Tottenham below, you can see how advanced he is when he receives the ball (His average position is about 15 yards further forward than it was previously) and the problems defenders have trying to compete with him.
(Credit: Mrx Comps)
This also limits the necessity for him to do the thing he is least effective at, namely keeping possession in midfield. Fellaini now receives about eight less passes per game (39.8 to 47.4) and attempts approximately 12 less (42.5 to 54.1). However, he is receiving the ball more in the final third than he did last season.
By stationing him further forward he is both rendered more dangerous, and prevented from slowing down their midfield passing. This also ensures that United have an outlet ball for their central defenders, some of whom are not particularly comfortable on the ball.
Fellaini has averaged about 15 fewer touches per game compared to last season (64.8 to 79.1). However, more of his touches now come in the final third (19.9 to 16.4) and his percentage of touches in the final third is obviously far higher (31% – 21%).
The result has been a far more effective player and team. His skills are at their most effective in and around both penalty areas and by removing his cumbersome passing from the midfield United have realised a double benefit.
One of Fellaini’s great strengths is that he at his best playing with his back to the opposition goal, where he can hold the ball up and bring others into the game. Given United are quite a small side overall, this is of more value to them than it would be to other teams.
Interestingly, this is something that Radamel Falcao has struggled with when playing up front this season. The Colombian has been dispossessed 35 times in his limited appearances for United. Fellaini has been dispossessed just 27 times in 271 more minutes of football.
His physical strength allows him to battle the bigger Premier League defenders. His goal against West Brom is an example of this, as he turns a relatively speculative cross into a goal with his strength and chest control.
(Credit: Sports 4000)
United have reaped the benefits from playing to Fellaini’s strengths and not putting him in positions where his weaknesses get exposed. The coaching staff deserve a lot of credit for doing this, rather than persisting with an attempt to shoehorn him into a role he doesn’t fit. In doing so they have helped Marouane transform himself from clown to cult hero at Old Trafford.