x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 January 2018

Can’t beat them, join them

As a late arrival at Old Trafford, the imposing Belgian will have to disprove theories as to why he ranked so low on the club's list of sumer transfer targets.

Belguim's Marouane Felliani is the fifth most expensive player in Manchester United's history. Laurence Griffiths / Getty Images
Belguim's Marouane Felliani is the fifth most expensive player in Manchester United's history. Laurence Griffiths / Getty Images

It was the standard speech of a player who has just joined Manchester United, but with one slight difference. Marouane Fellaini talked about wanting to win the league with his new club. Unlike other recruits, however, the Belgian starts not with zero titles, arguably, but with minus one.

But for him, United would probably have been champions in 2012. Were it not for him, too, they would not have suffered a false start to last season’s successful campaign. When he last played at Old Trafford, United afforded him a man-marker. The cliche is ‘if you can’t beat them, join them’; where Fellaini is concerned, perhaps that should be adapted to: ‘If you can’t stop them, sign them’.

A status as United’s nemesis was established in April 2012 when Everton, 3-1 and 4-2 down, recovered to draw 4-4. Fellaini scored their second goal and set up their fourth; as United lost eight points in four games, it was a pivotal result.

He began last season by heading a winner against United. So when Everton visited Manchester in February, he had his own personal escort: Phil Jones followed him all over the pitch, trying to reduce the match to a 10-a-side game while the Belgian and his bodyguard watched on.

So as Fellaini prepares to make his United debut against Crystal Palace tomorrow, perhaps his new employers’ prospects have already improved. Simply because they do not have to face him, United may argue they will take more points.

Yet the £27.5 million (Dh159.6m) midfielder starts both at an advantage and at a disadvantage. United are all too aware of who he is – an uncompromising, idiosyncratic force who has exposed their lack of physical power – but it is also a question of who he isn’t: the statement signing, the superstar they wanted.

Fellaini is the fifth most expensive player in United’s history. Even that, however, is deceptive, a proof of further failure. He had a £23.5m release clause that expired on July 31; United did not activate it and ended up paying an extra £4m.

The delay was all the odder as David Moyes, previously his manager at Everton, knew precisely what he was getting.

“He’s been one of the best midfielders in the Premier League over the last few seasons,” the Scot said. “He can play higher up, behind the striker or as a defensive midfielder.”

His versatility offers options but provides uncertainty. The reality is that Fellaini’s finest form for Everton came when playing just off the main striker, his height making him an unconventional attacking weapon. Yet Wayne Rooney is earmarked for that role at Old Trafford. United’s need is greatest in the centre of midfield where they were timid in defeat to Liverpool. Fellaini is altogether more competitive.

Yet a survey of United’s midfield targets this summer – including Cesc Fabregas, Thiago Alcantara, Daniele de Rossi and Wesley Sneijder – suggests Moyes’ priority was to inject creativity. Fellaini has proved he can deliver goals. The test is to show he can be a penetrative passer from a deeper position.

As it is, the expectation is that Moyes will resume his search for midfielders in January.

“I think that’s an area where everybody felt we could do with strengthening,” the manager said. Truth be told, they still do.

Fellaini will be compared with men they failed to sign this summer and those they could buy in the New Year. As one of Moyes’ former charges, he has to shake off suggestions his move was proof of nepotism. As a late arrival, he has to disprove theories why he ranked some way down the list of targets. An expensive addition starts not with a clean slate, but with an initial impediment.