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Marouane Fellaini: how the Belgian gladiator earned Mourinho’s trust

It is June 2019. The time is 9:32 pm. The clock on the scoreboard reads 92:17. Manchester United have won a corner. With the score tied at 1-1, Juan Mata plays it short corner to a young Diogo Dalot who whips a first-time cross into the Bayern Munich box. Only four United players are in the penalty area challenging 11 Bayern players. But, in the blink of an eye, a certain afroed Belgian leaps above everyone else and his powerful header beats Manuel Neuer to hit the back of the net. For the next second or two, a pin drop silence takes over the magnificent stadium in Madrid. 

It felt like time stood still and then there was a burst, an explosion of energy and ecstasy amongst the 30 thousand United supporters in the stadium as Fellaini ran across into the stands and celebrated with the fans. History is created. On the 20th anniversary of that night at Camp Nou in 1999, United do it again. Mourinho slides on the pitch with tears rolling down his cheeks and celebrates wildly with an elated Michael Carrick. London. Barcelona. Moscow. Madrid. United are the Champions of Europe again.

Okay, this might never happen. But for Marouane Fellaini to be accepted wholeheartedly by the United faithful, he will need to pull off a feat of similarly epic proportions. To try and understand the much-maligned figure of Marouane Fellaini, let’s get into our time capsule and fly back to 2013 when it all started for him at United.

Manchester United had just won their 20th Premier League title when Sir Alex Ferguson dropped a bombshell and announced his retirement. David Moyes was appointed as his successor and suffered a chaotic first transfer window. After being linked with the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo, Gareth Bale, Thiago Alcântara and Cesc Fabregas, the club had to settle for Marouane Fellaini on deadline day.

As the season progressed, frustration and anger grew amongst the United supporters. David Moyes was clearly not up to the task of managing United and Fellaini became emblematic of all that was wrong with the Scotsman’s regime. Fellaini, under Moyes at Everton, was mostly used in the 10 position where his aerial prowess often caused havoc in opponent’s boxes and led to some productive link-up play.

However at United, Moyes deployed Fellaini as a central midfielder alongside Michael Carrick. Fellaini has never been a great distributor of the ball or a player who can dribble through tight spaces and thread a through ball to the attackers. He did the simple things right but when the atmosphere started to get toxic around Old Trafford, many saw him as a pantomime villain.

One of the bright sparks in an otherwise forgettable season for United was the Champions League tie with Bayern Munich. United got a respectable 1-1 draw at Old Trafford but the fixture was also the occasion where frustration with Fellaini grew into hate. Around the 60th minute United, leading by a goal, got an opportunity to counter-attack. The ball fell to Fellaini on his own 18-yard box but rather than lay the ball off to a pacier teammate, Fellaini ran diagonally for more than 40 yards before losing control of the ball and conceding a throw-in. The groans from the stadium were deafening.

When Moyes was sacked, it was expected that Fellaini would also leave the club but Louis Van Gaal had other ideas. Van Gaal rejuvenated Fellaini’s career by putting an arm around his shoulder and the player responded in kind. One example of a reinvigorated Fellaini came in the early part of the season when United travelled to the Hawthorns to face West Brom. Trailing 1-0 at half-time, Fellaini came on in the second half and had an immediate impact. A juicy cross from the left wing was brilliantly chested down by him and then a sweetly struck left volley saw the ball arrow into the top corner.

That was just the beginning of a great relationship between Van Gaal and Fellaini. The Belgian went on to play 27 league games that season and scored 6 goals, most notably a thumping header in a 4-2 win over the noisy neighbours. But one decent season wasn’t enough to win back the hearts of the red half of Manchester. 

The second season under Van Gaal started brightly but a horrible December saw three back-to-back defeats. United fell to 6th place in the league and were eliminated from the Champions League group stages. It was a season to forget but Fellaini rose tall, yet again, when it mattered most. He scored the opener in a 2-1 semi-final FA Cup win over Everton and then assisted Juan Mata in the final to help United win their first trophy in 3 years.

After replacing Van Gaal, Jose Mourinho called the Belgian personally to let him know that he was still valued at the club. Fellaini may have been Mourinho’s darling since the Portuguese manager took over but the hate he received from the Old Trafford faithful was, at times, unfathomable.

One incident, in particular, remains ingrained in the memories of United fans. Fellaini was brought on as a substitute against Everton with the idea of seeing out a 1-0 victory. Rather than solidifying United’s defensive line, the Belgian clumsily fouled Idrissa Gueye inside the box to gift Everton a penalty and an equalizer. The next week, Fellaini was heavily booed by a large section of Old Trafford when he came on as a late substitute against Spurs.

But as the season progressed, Fellaini’s performances improved. He always had a knack of scoring vital goals and he popped up with two more, one in the League Cup semifinal and another in the Europa League semifinal. Without them, Mourinho’s first season at United would have been an utter failure. 

Getting into Mourinho’s good books is one of the hardest tasks in the world and many great players have failed to do so but Fellaini endeared himself to Mourinho from the start. Mourinho’s appreciation of Fellaini was such that, when asked about rumours that Fellaini could leave United for Galatasaray, his manager replied:

“It’s easier for Galatasaray to get me than Marouane. If they need a manager, they can try and have a chance, but Marouane? Forget it. He’s too important to me”

The campaign of 2017-18 saw United improve considerably as the club finished in 2nd place with 81 points, their highest ever finish and highest ever points tally since Sir Alex retired. However, during this season, Fellaini dragged his contract situation out over the entire year. The Belgian even left the club and travelled with his national team for the World Cup with his future still in doubt.

This strange behaviour from Fellaini caught the ire of many United supporters once again as they felt their club was being held hostage by a player not worthy of the badge. The standoff was resolved with less than 48 hrs left on his contract when the club announced that Fellaini had agreed to extend his contract for two years.

This brings us to the burning question that surrounds Fellaini’s position at Manchester United: what can numerous decorated managers see in Fellaini that so many fans cannot?

The current crop of top central midfielders are all lauded for their well-roundedness. The likes of N’Golo Kanté, Luka Modrić, Nemanja Matic, Paul Pogba,  Fernandinho and to an extent, even Kevin De Bruyne, all fit this bill and have been widely praised for their effectiveness. Fellaini is the opposite of all of them, a one-dimensional player who does one thing that none of the aforementioned superstars can: cause chaos.

These world-class midfielders are all-action terriers and extremely accomplished passers. From one end of the pitch to the other, they make tackles and interceptions while also being instrumental in launching attacks for their teams. They act as the cogs that keep the team ticking. But if these well-rounded midfielders are the new superheroes, then Fellaini is surely the physical embodiment of kryptonite.

It is often said that despite Fellaini’s sub-par talent, he has the physical capabilities to upset any defence in the world. That has worked both for and against United over the past few seasons. Moyes was determined to use the Belgian as a screen in front of United’s back four despite the player’s lack of tactical discipline and Fellaini’s clumsy nature often hindered United’s flaccid defending more than it helped.

However in recent weeks, Fellaini, under the guidance of Mourinho, has excelled in that role. He was deployed in front of the back four against Burnley and Watford and gave man of the match performances in both victories. Fellaini nullified not only the aerial threats of these teams but was also pivotal in breaking down their play by making numerous important interceptions. 

In the penalty shootout loss to Derby in the Carabao Cup, Fellaini came on as a substitute and scored a 95th-minute equaliser to momentarily save United’s blushes.

Of all the things that Fellaini has been accused of over the seasons, no one can accuse him of not being a great professional, an aspect of his personality recently commented on by his former teammate Rio Ferdinand. Fellaini is almost a cosmic force of destructive energy, a secret weapon that if not deployed correctly all too often backfires.

Jose Mourinho’s future at the club might be in doubt but what’s not in doubt is Fellaini’s commitment to his team and his manager. A scapegoat for far too long, it is time for the 30-year-old to take centre stage and help his club out in this time of need.

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# Team MP W D L P
1 Chelsea 8 6 1 1 19
2 Liverpool 8 5 3 0 18
3 Manchester City 8 5 2 1 17
4 Brighton & Hov… 8 4 3 1 15
5 Tottenham Hotspur 8 5 0 3 15
6 Manchester United 8 4 2 2 14
7 West Ham United 8 4 2 2 14
8 Everton 8 4 2 2 14
9 Brentford 8 3 3 2 12
10 Wolverhampton Wanderers 8 4 0 4 12
11 Leicester City 8 3 2 3 11
12 Arsenal 8 3 2 3 11
13 Aston Villa 8 3 1 4 10
14 Crystal Palace 8 1 5 2 8
15 Southampton 8 1 4 3 7
16 Watford 8 2 1 5 7
17 Leeds United 8 1 3 4 6
18 Burnley 8 0 3 5 3
19 Newcastle United 8 0 3 5 3
20 Norwich City 8 0 2 6 2

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