Fellaini all elbows and just fouls all the time got no skill on the ball what so ever to say he's a big guy he struggles jumping up for headers as well. Can't believe he's allowed to touch a Utd shirt never mind wear it.
Liverpool v Manchester United: Marouane Fellaini will hold the key on Sunday - but what sort of player is he?
What sort of player, exactly, is Marouane Fellaini? Deep-lying destroyer? Box-to-box lung-buster? Bony target man? Scarecrow-like decoy? Jonathan Liew investigates
Enigma wrapped in a riddle: Marouane Fellaini convinced everyone he was rubbish - but now he's good Photo: PA
By Jonathan Liew
4:15PM GMT 20 Mar 2015
“Sometimes, I look at myself and ask: what is my best position?”
Therein lies the enduring dilemma of Marouane Fellaini. Perhaps it is little wonder that English football has taken so long to define Fellaini, given that he occasionally struggles to define himself. The above words are taken from an interview Fellaini gave in 2013, just a few months before Manchester United bought him for £27 million.
Fellaini was the only signing of David Moyes’s first summer at United, and so it was inevitable that their fates would become intertwined: the Chosen One’s chosen one. Like Moyes, Fellaini was written off well before his first season was out. For the first time in his career, Fellaini ended the season without a single goal.
This season, something curious has happened. United are still a fraction of the side that dominated English football for two decades, but Fellaini has been one of its unquestioned successes. He has earned not just goals and assists, but the trust of Louis van Gaal. United’s five biggest games this season have been Chelsea, Manchester City, Liverpool and the two against Arsenal. Only Fellaini and David de Gea have started all five. Quietly and by degrees, Fellaini has become one of United’s indispensables.
And yet there remains a certain reluctance to acknowledge this. It is no coincidence that the ascent of Fellaini comes just as criticisms of United’s style of football have reached their apex. For some, Fellaini represents Anti-United: a keyboard shortcut for the most naked sort of footballing pragmatism. For some, his limitations are all too obvious, his potential replacements all too stellar, for him to be anything more than a slightly unsophisticated Plan C at present.
All of which is tied up with a more general confusion. What sort of player, exactly, is Fellaini? Deep-lying destroyer? Box-to-box lung-buster? Bony target man? Scarecrow-like decoy? How you define a player who can do this…
In short: what is a Fellaini? And how do you use one?
Marc Wilmots, his Belgian national team coach, is in no doubt: “Marouane is a box-to-box player.” Rio Ferdinand reckons his best position is “off the front-man”. Fellaini, for his part, has a different idea again.
Let’s revisit the quote that began this article, but in full. “Sometimes I look at myself and ask, ‘What is my best position?’ I think it’s a defensive midfielder, that’s the best one. The manager might like it sometimes when I play up front, because I can cause trouble for the defenders. But for me, my best position is defensive midfield – stopping the opposition and then looking to impose myself on a game. When I play up front, it’s hard. It’s not my position and I find it difficult.”
Manchester United part one
Fellaini was not Thiago Alcantara or Toni Kroos or Cesc Fabregas or any of United’s other transfer targets, and so in many ways he was damned from the start. “He wasn’t meant to be our only signing at United that summer,” Moyes later wrote in the Mail on Sunday. “He was brought in to complement the squad and the other players we were hoping to bring in. Unfortunately, he was the only player we brought in. It meant he was under more pressure than he should have been.”
Watch the press conference where he is being unveiled at Old Trafford for the first time. As Moyes extols his qualities, Fellaini’s pupils are darting all over the pace, his eyes infinitely drawn to the sea of lights and cameras before him. The room is bathed in a weird blue light. It is probably the biggest conference Fellaini has done in his life. When he speaks, he speaks with sharp intakes of breath and the occasional gulp.
Armed with the knowledge of what followed, it’s clear how Fellaini is feeling at this moment in time. He’s absolutely petrified.
Fellaini entered a United squad hollow in the middle. The retirement of Paul Scholes, the illness of Darren Fletcher and the failures of Anderson and Tom Cleverley left a gulf in the centre of midfield that Sir Alex Ferguson had failed to fill. United fans were desperate for an enforcer in midfield, a role that had arguably gone unfilled since the departure of Roy Keane in 2005. Then Fellaini arrived. It seemed a natural fit.
Fellaini himself expressed a desire to emulate Keane. “I can win the ball, I can clear the ball, I can play clean,” he said. And right from the outset, there was a sense that Fellaini was being shoehorned into a sentinel’s role with the minimum of discussion. With the likes of Wayne Rooney, Robin van Persie, Danny Welbeck and Shinji Kagawa in attack, nobody gave too much thought to the offensive qualities of a man who had scored 11 goals for Everton the previous season.
There were isolated voices of dissent. Henning Berg argued that Fellaini could have a similar impact to Eric Cantona, and urged Moyes to play him further forward. “He can get players around him, he can control and dominate games, and I think United have too few players who can do that,” he said. But nobody was listening.
It is interesting to analyse the language which United players and staff used to describe Fellaini. “He’s powerful and strong in the air,” said David de Gea. “But not only will he help us defensively, he’s a real threat at dead-ball situations and is always likely to nick a goal or two.”
Moyes’s assistant, Steve Round, explained Fellaini’s signing in an interview with the Manchester Evening News. “One of the players we needed to bring in,” he said, “was someone with those physical attributes in the middle of midfield, who could give us strength and aggression in certain games and maybe allow one or two of the others to play.”
Strength and aggression. Nick a goal or two. Allow the others to play. From the very start of his United career, Fellaini was receiving an unambiguous signal: he was not there to play his natural, marauding game. He was not there to do anything fancy. He was not there to create. He was there to destroy.
And so, those early months at United were defined by flux. Moyes chopped and changed his starting XI on a regular basis. Against Everton, one of many low points, Fellaini and Ryan Giggs were overrun in midfield as United lost 1-0. When Giggs replaced Moyes in April 2014, he showed exactly what he thought of Fellaini’s ability, not even deeming worthy of a place on the bench for his first game in charge.
The Fellaini of last season, we see now, was one wracked with doubt: carrying the expectations of one of the world’s biggest club at the very moment he was being asked to curb his natural instincts. The nadir came in a Champions League game against Bayern Munich, when his attempt to launch an attack ended not just in failure, but in eternal internet ignominy.
By the end of the 2014 season, Fellaini had literally forgotten how to dribble a football.
For his first coaches, the teenage Fellaini was unlike anyone else. His prodigious height – “a gift from God”, according to Karim Mariage, his youth coach at Mons – was allied to immense natural stamina. But although he was tall, he was skinny: a little awkward, with long, gangly limbs. The muscularity and immense upper body strength that would allow him to dominate games would not fully develop until his early years at Everton.
But what really set him apart in those early years was his stamina: a legacy of running to school every day, with his father often following on a bicycle, timing him with a stopwatch. “He was truly able to make exceptional efforts,” said Christophe Dessy, the technical director at Standard Liege.
At Standard Liege Fellaini became one of the finest young box-to-box midfielders in Europe
What was the best way of using this unique blend of attributes? His father Abdellatif had been a goalkeeper, so Fellaini tried that for a while before getting bored. As a young player he played up front. When he joined Standard’s reserve team, it was as a centre-back. But one thing remained constant wherever he went: goals. He scored 37 goals in one season for the Anderlecht academy. Even when he broke into the Standard first-team as a deep-lying midfielder, he still scored 11 goals in two-and-a-bit seasons, many of them headers.
Fellaini was developing a reputation as one of the finest young box-to-box midfielders in Europe. But it was a defensive performance that ultimately secured a move to England. During a Champions League play-off against Liverpool in 2008, Fellaini did an outstanding marking job on Steven Gerrard, as a below-par Liverpool scraped into 1-0 on aggregate. Watching that game from the stands at Anfield was David Moyes, and that was the night when he decided that Fellaini was the missing piece of the Everton jigsaw.
“He wanted stature,” Everton chairman Bill Kenwright later remembered. “He wanted tall.”
Fellaini was secured for a club record £15 million on transfer deadline day, after Moyes and club secretary Dave Harrison made a mad dash to Belgium, met the player and faxed over the relevant paperwork with just minutes to spare.
Initially, Fellaini struggled to acclimatise. “When I was in Belgium, everybody said the English league was for me because it’s physical,” Fellaini said in a 2013 interview with FourFourTwo magazine. “But when I came here, I found out that it’s very, very physical. I had to adapt.”
Initially, Fellaini struggled to acclimatise to the Premier League
Everton’s players regarded this skittish young 20-year-old with a certain curiosity. “It was quite unusual, really,” Leighton Baines later remembered. “In his first week, he kept going around smashing into people with these wild tackles. Some of the lads didn’t know what to make of it, and wouldn’t go near him.”
Moyes originally signed Fellaini as a holding player, but quickly realised that his best role was further forward. “He wasn’t disciplined enough, he didn’t get involved in the game enough and he probably wasn’t a good enough passer,” Leon Osman wrote in his autobiography. “However, if you got the ball to him in and around the penalty area, he was almost impossible to compete with.”
There were times during Fellaini’s first season when he even played up front. But gradually, as time went on, he moved further and further back. The following graph shows the amount of games Fellaini started in a primarily attacking role, season by season. By the 2011-12 season, he was playing as one of a pair of defensive midfielders, with either a rotating cast of Darron Gibson, Jack Rodwell, Johnny Heitinga and Osman alongside him.
Percentage of games started in attacking role (attacking midfielder, second striker, striker)
Then, in the summer of 2012, Tim Cahill left Everton after eight years. Needing a physical presence to play just behind the striker, Moyes once again pushed the man he described as “the big fella at Standard Liege” forward. The result was the best season of Fellaini’s career. He scored 12 goals in all competitions, created more chances than ever before, won more headers than all 11 of United’s midfielders combined.
Fellaini season-by-season stats (per 90 minutes)
One other thing happened in 2012-13: Fellaini gave away possession more often than in any other season in his Premier League career. It may well be that in order to get the best out of Fellaini, you have to give him the licence to make mistakes.
So, to recap: Fellaini was signed by Everton as a holding midfielder, converted to a second striker, then into a deep-lying playmaker, then into a second striker again. Therefore, there’s a certain perverse irony to the fact that when United eventually came calling, it was to turn him into something else again.
Manchester United part two
The received wisdom was that when Van Gaal returned from the World Cup, he was going to sell Fellaini and bring in Kevin Strootman. Or if Strootman was still injured, someone else. Ander Herrera and Daley Blind arrived to play in central midfield. Fellaini’s days appeared numbered.
Shortly after the signing of Angel di Maria and Radamel Falcao, the BBC website asked a number of journalists and pundits – including our very own Henry Winter – to sketch out a likely United XI and substitutes bench for the coming season. Of the six, none picked Fellaini in their XI, and only Pat Nevin included him on the bench.
Louis van Gaal reassured Fellaini he did have a future at Old Trafford
But Van Gaal had other ideas. Shortly after the start of the season, with Fellaini still short of fitness, the pair had a brief chat in which Van Gaal assured Fellaini that he had a bright future at the club. He had spotted something that many United observers appeared to have overlooked – that the defensive linchpin role failed to make the best use of Fellaini’s talents. Not only that, but it had a knock-on effect on his confidence.
“Marouane Fellaini has a body,” Van Gaal said after the FA Cup win over Preston in February. “He also scores goals. I played him in the position that he wants for the first time, but I do not always have a position for him.”
Compare the following Opta heatmaps, one from each of Fellaini’s last three seasons. The first is a game for Everton against Southampton in September 2012. He doesn’t score or assist a goal, but he does have seven shots, and he doesn’t even play the whole game. Pretty much the only time he visits his own half is on the four occasions that Southampton kick-off.
Now one from November 2013: the 2-2 draw between Cardiff and Manchester United. United have eight corners in the game, which you assume explains the big splodge in the Cardiff penalty area. But apart from that, he barely approaches the final third. His job is to sit, to cover, to guard. Allow the others to play.
Now let’s look at what may well be Fellaini’s best performance at United so far – the home win against Stoke in December. It wasn’t a great United display, but it was the consummate Fellaini display: energetic, high-intensity, and with a cutting edge.
Notice, too, that Fellaini spends a lot of his time on the right flank. This appears to be a recurring theme over the course of the season. Fellaini’s main function is not as a central target man, but as a player to run the channels: attacking long diagonal balls going forward, helping out his full-back in defence. He played a virtual mirror image of the role against Tottenham last Sunday: an auxiliary second striker and an old-fashioned wing half all in one.
Van Gaal may have made his name playing attractive passing football, but he is instinctively drawn to versatile players, and Fellaini is swiftly proving himself as one of the most versatile midfielders in English football. As time goes by, it is becoming clearer and clearer: Herrera and Blind weren’t bought to replace Fellaini, they were bought to set him free.
Moyes again: “He can perform several jobs in a team but I think it helps him to have someone like Daley Blind sitting there in that more defensive midfield role. At Standard Liege he had [Steven] Defour or [Axel] Witsel sitting deeper and allowing him to get further forward, and at Everton he had players like Phil Neville. At United last season we lacked that kind of midfielder.”
None of which solves the issue of defining exactly what sort of player Fellaini is. But then, when you consider his full gamut of skills, Fellaini truly is one of a kind. As Wilmots put it: “In Belgium, you don’t find another player who has the same profile as Fellaini.”
In Belgium, Fellaini is hero-worshipped
Think about it. How many other midfielders in the world game can boast Fellaini’s unique range of talents? There are plenty of players just as good as Fellaini on the ball, but very few who come close in terms of stamina, upper body strength, heading ability and stature. You might say Paul Pogba or Nemanja Matic, or even – at a stretch – Leroy Fer, a vastly underrated aerial threat.
Contrary to popular impressions, United do not in fact play more long balls when Fellaini is on the pitch. In fact, they play slightly fewer. What it does mean is that if you are going to play a long ball, there is really only one player it makes sense to play it to.
In many ways, Fellaini is an entirely new sort of midfielder, one for which English football has yet to find a satisfactory definition. Amongst the wider footballing public, Fellaini’s name is still something of a punchline. Yet United are slowly discovering that the man originally signed as a midfield Rottweiler has the potential to become one of the most intriguing and enigmatic players in football. And it only took them a year to notice.
Most certainly the player who has shown the biggest progress this season and slowly becoming a very useful utility player. I wouldn't have imagined this in the wildest dreams at the beginning of the season but I'm glad I'm proven wrong. At least, it's for this season, I still think we need someone quicker and more mobile when implement the new ways of playing but he is very valuable player to have with his attributes, most certainly for a matches where we need his unusual qualities.
LVG is using Fellaini the same way the Belgian national coach does, and it's starting to pay off, which doesn't surprise me. Fellaini will never be a "great player" in my books though, but he has certainly reached another level under LVG, and he could remain an interesting player for us.
I don't think LVG will let him go. But I don't expect Fellaini to be a long-term regular week in week out either. But who knows? As I keep repeating: it's what you do with your players that matters, and the balance you can create. Right now, Fellaini is perfect in that role, with Rooney up front, no one knows what the future holds for him and for everyone else in fact. Mata has also shown LVG why he should keep him in the last few games.
I am just so glad LVG's work is starting to pay off, and that almost every player now knows what is expected of him in our system. The team is growing fine and will be ready to challenge for titles next season, and that's all I am asking for this season.
Louis van Gaal says Marouane Fellaini deserves all the credit for his excellent performances of late, with the Manchester United manager insisting the Belgian has to start each match on current form.
After a difficult first campaign with the Reds, Fellaini has played an integral part in United's resurgence during his second season.
The no.31 narrowly missed out to Juan Mata in United's Player of the Month poll and has since added to his impressive club exploits by scoring three goals in two games for his country. Van Gaal is delighted to see the way Fellaini has performed and was quick to praise the attacking midfielder for the way he has turned his fortunes around.
"It is only the player [who has made this happen]," the boss told MUTV. "The manager, staff and the players are helping him, but he is the main reason, by himself."
When asked about Fellaini's form by reporters at his press conference on Friday, van Gaal added: "Another thing I've said many times is that he was late back when I first saw him [because of the World Cup]. I'd heard a lot about him and from the first training session, he did what I asked of him. I said 'you have to do this' and he was open and wanted to perform that, I'm not surprised [by his form].
"He had an unlucky season [last season] because he was injured and ill a lot of times, but when he's been fit he's always played for me, more or less. I was looking for balance in the team, and he can bring that. Of course, I can change things depending on our opponent, but at the minute I can't change him when he's playing like this."
It's good to see players who had been burried coming back into the frame. It also shows LVG's capabilities of fitting the players into the side and building strong teams with what he has at his disposal. I don't think Fellaini would have been his type of player, but there has been no hard feelings on either side, and both worked hard to improve the balance of the side. It has paid off big time.