Marouane Fellaini – the king of the bad times at Manchester United
From Moyes to Mourinho, the big midfielder came across as the bad habit you fell back on when there was no other sensible plan
Fellaini outjumping Arsenal’s Shkodran Mustafi. The Belgian can make use of his Velcro-touch chest control, all the while clearing the area around him with a head-high, studs-up roundhouse ninja lunge. Photograph: AFP
Carry on then, Marouane. After some suggestions this week that Marouane Fellaini might be on his way out of Old Trafford, Ole Gunnar Solskjær’s Friday press conference went the other way. Instead Solskjær offered what newspapers like to call “a vote of confidence” in the gangling Belgian utility-menace, talking up Fellaini’s continued presence through this his sixth year as a Manchester United player.
It isn’t hard to see why some said his time was up. Under Solskjær Fellaini has played three minutes in the Premier League. His basic footballing presence has seemed at odds with a more mobile, fluid style. Plus there is, of course, a wider symbolic aspect to all this.
Fellaini will never really shake his status as the first big signing of the post-Ferguson years. Through successive managerial eras he has fronted up gamely, but remained the embodiment of something stubborn and stuck, an inherited burden, like a particularly oppressive antique mahogany Victorian sideboard nobody ever has the will or the guts to throw away.
How to characterise the Fellaini years? In his book The Last Empire Gore Vidal offers up a wryly crushing list of the official codenames of every 20th century US overseas military operation, a line-up that reads now like a stock list of the top-selling Macedonian erectile dysfunction drugs currently being advertised up in your spam email folder.
Operation Shining Hope. Operation Decisive Enhancement. Operation Golden Python. Operation Noble Obelisk, Urgent Fury, Provide Relief, Provide Hope, Continue Hope, and of course – a personal favourite – Operation Frequent Wind.
What codename would best capture Fellaini’s own 5½-year campaign at Old Trafford, you wonder. Operation Shin-Bobble. Operation Crowd-Slice. Operation Panic Hoof. Operation Slow Clanking Midfield Death?
Easiest of targets
And yet this is, of course, unfair in many ways. Fellaini is also the easiest of targets. There is no doubt he has been over-blamed, has become disproportionately symbolic of United’s recent difficult years.
Now I am become death, destroyer of worlds: in the five years before Fellaini’s arrival United won four Premier Leagues and one Champions League. In five seasons since they haven’t come close to winning either. The failings have been systemic and structural. Other, more talented players have underperformed more spectacularly. But it is Fellaini who will be most marked by this, and most closely associated as a symbol of the dark times.
But then he was signed under a false premise in the first place. For years United had craved a proper midfielder, a player with the craft and the touch to control the spaces and work the angles, to drive the deeper rhythms of a game.
In Fellaini they got someone who’d had his most spectacular times for Everton as a kind of improvised target man, a No 10 of the skies, making use of his one really outstanding attribute, that incredible Velcro-touch chest control, the ability to catch long passes with those invisible chest-fingers and roll the ball down his neck, wearing it like a scarf, all the while clearing the area around him with a head-high, studs-up roundhouse ninja lunge.
Fellaini’s strength and awkwardness remain his awkwardly-embraced strengths, that feeling he is always on the verge of kicking over a side-table, falling through a plasterboard wall, wrenching down the curtains. Otherwise he is a strange A-list midfielder: not fast, agile, notably creative or notably defensive; not renowned for his passing, dribbling, tackling, vision, finishing or any other of the more standard qualities.
At which point it would be hipper, and more in keeping with the traditions of the sideways football column to start a sentence with the words “But still somehow”. To find a way of saying that in fact Fellaini has secretly been better than anyone thought, that he has at least been a fan favourite, an object of more profound and personal inspiration.
Four straight defeats
Except, this isn’t really true, or at least not yet. Fellaini did play every minute of a couple of successful cup finals. He has scored vital goals. But he has also racked up two – yes, two – assists in 5½ years as a Manchester United midfielder. He has been the king of the bad times, played in the loss at home to Sevilla last year and in the four straight defeats to Wolfsburg, Norwich, Bournemouth and Stoke in December 2015.
Plus the way managers have used him has seemed to sum up something more insidious. From Moyes to Mourinho, Fellaini has been the bad habit you fall back on when there is no other sensible plan, the big red panic button you grope for under the desk, the sodden kebab spread across your chest in the first light of dawn.
It is still hard not to associate him with United’s second signing of the post-Fergie age – Juan Mata – his own laughably disconnected tactical opposite. For a while they seemed always to be yoked together on the touchline, Fellaini a stirringly primal figure, United’s giant wicker football-man, Mata scampering around his ankles like the king of the gnomes. Together they made a perfect emblem of the lack of a guiding hand or long-term plan, a general absence of care and close expertise. Got a big bloke? Get a small bloke in next.
It has at least been a genuinely fascinating United career, and a rebuttal to the notion that the only interesting stories are success stories. The news that Fellaini may now be staying after all is to be welcomed too, a chance for him to play for the first time in a team not leaning, a little exhaustedly, on his height and power; and, who knows, perhaps to finish all this – Operation Desperate Flick-On, Operation Knee In the Chest – on an unexpectedly happy note.