Manchester United's big-money summer signing may not have hit the same heights as he managed during his time at Everton, but as Michael Cox explains, patience is a virtue...
Things haven’t exactly gone to plan for Marouane Fellaini since he followed his old manager David Moyes along the M62 to complete a £27.5m move from Everton to Manchester United last summer.
Last week’s poor performance in the Champions League quarter-final first-leg draw with Bayern Munich was probably the Belgian’s most difficult display in a red shirt. He conceded possession readily when United won the ball on the edge of their own box, often dribbled forward aimlessly, and even his famous aerial skills seemed to desert him. He became the target of abuse for many Manchester United fans.
Yet Fellaini has been in an extremely difficult position. He was signed on deadline day, and arrived at United without having the benefit of pre-season to familiarise himself with his team-mates and become accustomed to the style of football at the club. “When I arrived, I didn't know the players and the team at all,” he told Manchester United’s website earlier this week.
His full league debut, for example, was the 4-1 thrashing at Manchester City, when it had already become clear things weren’t working out for Moyes at United. Fellaini wasn’t being asked to adapt to Manchester United’s football, he was being asked to do something entirely different – to raise their level of football. In his first weeks at a genuinely big club, that was an incredibly tough task, and the pressure has proved too much.
It seems peculiar, however, that Fellaini has received so much criticism when other, more experienced players have also underperformed. Veterans like Rio Ferdinand, Nemanja Vidic, Patrice Evra, Michael Carrick and Robin van Persie have fallen short of the standards they’ve set in previous campaigns, and it’s those leaders in the dressing room who should be most disappointed by their underperformance. Newcomers like Fellaini and Juan Mata should be spared real criticism for now.
A change of position
Nevertheless, it’s difficult to disguise the fact that Fellaini’s displays haven’t been impressive. Part of the problem, it appears, is that his best position hasn’t yet been determined. Last season he was often excellent for Everton in a support striker role, including on the opening weekend in a 1-0 victory over his future employers Manchester United, where he battered the defence and scored a headed winner.
At United, however, Moyes has generally deployed him in a deeper role, alongside Carrick but with license to move forward. In all honesty, from United’s attempted recruitment last summer, it seems Fellaini wasn’t the type of player they truly wanted – moves for Cesc Fabregas, Luka Modric and Ander Herrera, much smaller, more technical creative players, suggests they wanted a proper playmaker. Fellaini was something of a back-up, and recruited partly because Moyes was familiar with him from his Everton displays.
Interestingly, in recent weeks Fellaini has generally been better away from home – which tallies with Manchester United’s overall performance. The champions actually have the best away record in the Premier League this season, compared with only the 10th-best home record. Again, pressure is playing a part.
For example, Fellaini’s performance in the 3-0 win away at West Brom was very good – he consistently made key defensive interventions on the edge of his own box, then played out calmly from the back.
He also did something similar away at West Ham, where he dropped deep to assist makeshift centre-back Michael Carrick against the aerial threat of Andy Carroll:
But his performance unquestionably dipped against Bayern, with fewer defensive contributions and sloppier passing in midfield:
Most surprising, however, was the fact even Fellaini’s aerial stats were so poor against Bayern – he pushed high up the pitch to challenge for long balls, helping United to get around Bayern’s midfield press, but he won only one from seven aerial duels, compared to all four against West Brom, for example.
Fellaini believes his recent performances have shown promise. “I feel more confident in myself now because I know the players and I know how to play in this team, which is important,” he says. “Now I know everybody and I am benefitting as a result. I have played well in quite a few games, so I am happy with that. I am excited about what is to come and I am determined to be successful for this club.”
It’s been a season to forget for Fellaini so far, but there are signs his performance is improving. The Belgian has yet to handle the pressure that comes with a move to Old Trafford, but there’s no reason to consign him to the dustbin.