It had been a year of back and forth with Manchester United desperately trying to tie down Marouane Fellaini to a new contract as he entered into his final year. Even when January approached and the Belgian was free to sign a pre-contract with a European club of his choosing and move away for free, José Mourinho pleaded with the United board in order to get this over the line.
It is no secret that Manchester United fans have had a rollercoaster of a relationship with Fellaini over the years. After being David Moyes’ only signing the summer he took over from Sir Alex Ferguson, fans were never going to take to him well without others being brought through the door with him.
Given he is also an unorthodox United player that is full of technical ability, it only worsened matters when they found out the club had overpaid for Fellaini due to his buy-out clause expiring earlier in the summer.
Fellaini left it until late in the day – and while with Belgium on international duty – to announce that he had signed a new and improved two-year deal that will keep him at the club until he’s 32-years-old. While there was uproar from certain corners of supporters given the embarrassment over handling this contract extension, others greeted it with optimism and thought if Mourinho wanted him so badly to extend, there must be a reason for that.
And that reason has been shown in the opening handful of games into the new season. Mourinho, quite clearly, sees Fellaini as his enforcer. As the player who is going to do his dirty work on the pitch, break the opposition’s play up and distribute the ball in order for the team to move forward and attack the space. At too many times in Fellaini’s United career has he been used as a number 10, trying to dictate play, when that is not where his strengths lie.
While United have not had the easiest starts possible in terms of their results and performances on the pitch, Fellaini has been a key cog at times when Mourinho has called on him. The Belgian, especially in the remaining 30 minutes of matches, acts as a player who offers protection and security in front of his defence – a defence that has been under fire and on shaky legs so far.
Fellaini is not the most eye-pleasing player in a United jersey, but it’s not his job to be that. You simply cannot – or expect – a team to be filled with flair players that take your breath away at every moment. In most elite clubs, they have players who carry out instructions diligently and can be trusted to sacrifice themselves for the team’s cause. Mourinho has said on countless ocassions that Fellaini is one of his most trusted players and can rely on him.
While United’s overall performance against Wolves at the weekend was dire, Fellaini’s performance stood out. For the first 50 minutes, the Belgian was organised in carrying out his role in front of United’s back four, mopping up any danger that would come his way from Wolves’ sharp break aways. Acting in a more defensive role, Fellaini looked comfortable when tasked with thwarting any danger.
When Wolves eventually did find a breakthrough in Joao Moutinho’s wonderful strike, Fellaini’s role changed somewhat. Instead of occupying the space just in front of his two central defenders, he was given the freedom to move forward and cause chaos in an attacking sense. Having a focal point, in addition to Romelu Lukaku, who was incredibly poor, helped United move up the pitch efficiently. The transition in United’s play from defence into attack was eased and the Red Devils found themselves dominating more of possession in the final 30 minutes.
As soon as Andreas Pereira came onto the field with 15 minutes to play, Fellaini made the permanent move up front, where United’s creators had an easier job in finding possession in the final third. While, in the end, their hard labour failed to bring home the three points, it did highlight the many uses of Fellaini under Mourinho and why the Portuguese manager is so keen on having him on the pitch.
He quite possibly might never be truly accepted by fans inside Old Trafford, but Fellaini has been one of United’s better players so far this season and looks to be more comfortable at the start of this campaign than in previous years. His position, at the base of midfield, is one where he excels in and has seen the most praise in. With such a long and tiring season ahead, there will always be a time for Fellaini’s presence.
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