No one else has the Belgian’s idiosyncratic combination of attributes or his identity. He stopped things getting worse for United against Burnley. The counter-argument is that he stops them getting better
Marouane Fellaini - the man Jose Mourinho turns to in a time of crisis
Jose Mourinho’s smile has rarely been seen in his summer of discontent. Until, that is, he was asked about Marouane Fellaini at Turf Moor and, with the glow of victory, his face lit up. He settled into a eulogy, to Manchester United’s most misunderstood player and to himself, for picking Fellaini.
The Belgian has a peculiar status at Old Trafford. He may be a squad player but very few footballers in United’s history have been symbolic figures in the reigns of three different managers. Under first David Moyes, then Louis van Gaal and now Mourinho, Fellaini has been. The story of the post-Alex Ferguson United can be told through him and, in some respects, Fellaini is the epitome of how United lost their way. He is not a footballer in their truest traditions, not a stylist or an entertaining attacker. Instead, he can be a magnet for mockery. It explains why he has often been underestimated.
But not by Mourinho. Team selections tend to be particularly instructive when managers most require a result. They often turn to those they trust most. Out went the £52 million (Dh246m) summer buy Fred at Burnley. In came Fellaini. He is more than just Mourinho’s comfort blanket. The previous time he had excelled in a defensive assignment it entailed snuffing out Neymar and co in a World Cup quarter-final. This time, he was charged with halting very different types of attackers, with stopping the ball reaching Burnley’s tall strikers.
Some of the talk about United’s centre-backs being substandard has felt fuelled by Mourinho in his frustration at a failure to sign one. At Turf Moor, he paired arguably the weakest of a flawed quintet, in Chris Smalling and Victor Lindelof. Fellaini represented their bodyguard, preventing many a ball from reaching either.
Lukaku and Lacazette make up the attack: Premier League team of the week
Calm, capable, strong - Alderweireld is everything Manchester United's defenders are not
Mourinho had tried to reinforce that rearguard with another midfielder six days earlier, when Ander Herrera struggled as an auxiliary central defender. Fellaini’s use in the holding role may have been a bespoke tactic to face a side as direct as Burnley, but it was telling.
United’s usual anchorman, Nemanja Matic, is a towering figure in his own right. Mourinho rationalised that Fellaini is still better in the air and shifted the Serb further forward. At a time when his peers are picking increasingly constructive players at the base of the midfield, Mourinho had the destructive anomaly.
It is impossible to imagine Fellaini in a Pep Guardiola side. He is certainly not a regista, a deep-lying playmaker, like Maurizio Sarri’s protégé Jorginho. He is more used to being the Plan B, the resident 12th man, than the player the team is built around. Where others want more cerebral players with high passing statistics, Mourinho prizes a footballer with aerial ability, innate awkwardness, tactical discipline and a willing spirit.
His desperation to keep Fellaini in the summer, when his contract was expiring, can be explained by the difficulty of replacing an inimitable footballer. No one else has Fellaini’s idiosyncratic combination of attributes or his identity.
He is a player Mourinho turns to time in times of need, one who helped quell talk of crisis with a commanding performance. He stopped things getting worse for United. The counter-argument is that he stops them getting better; that, as long as Fellaini is there, United will be tempted to resort to him, to deploy direct football whenever they are chasing a game rather than developing a more enlightened style of play. Matches, for better and worse, tend to be defined by Fellaini. United may be trapped in a position where they are not progressing, so Fellaini is required to prevent them from regressing: either so they were out of the top four, from Ed Woodward’s perspective, or out of a job, in Mourinho’s case.
A damage-limitation specialist spared United and Mourinho from further harm at Burnley. Fellaini does not represent a long-term strategy to improve United. But in the short-term, and in troubled times, he proved amongst his manager’s staunchest allies.