A few months back, if you’d have asked fans around Old Trafford to name one player synonymous with David Moyes’ disastrous 2013/14 campaign in charge of Manchester United, the most popular answer would have almost certainly been Marouane Fellaini.
The big Belgian was seen as the perfect personification of United’s direct tactics under Moyes, and his struggle for form made him an easy target for the boo boys. Fellaini’s transfer also highlighted Ed Woodward’s perceived ineptitude in the transfer market, after United were forced to pay millions of pounds extra by stalling the deal to bring him to United until deadline day.
Fellaini was withdrawn towards the end of Sunday’s Manchester Derby to a rapturous ovation, and is now being portrayed as an indication of Louis Van Gaal’s ability to draw the best out of his current United squad. Ashley Young will probably be seen as the most improved player, particularly after Sunday’s result, but Fellaini has arguably shown the most character.
Wayne Rooney has recently alluded to the support Fellaini has received from inside the club, and indicated that his recent form is no surprise at all, to the Manchester United players at least:
“He (Fellaini) is probably the best in world football at bringing the ball down and getting us out of that pressure and further up the pitch. He is being used in the right way by the manager and he is repaying the manager with goals and good performances.”
High praise indeed, if you pardon the pun.
Fellaini was a popular figure at Goodison before his short move to Manchester. Ironically, his bullish performance at Old Trafford in April 2012 earned a point for the Toffees that put a huge dent in United’s title challenge. Manchester City won the title that year, but it wasn’t until United had wrestled the title back from their noisy neighbours that new manager Moyes paid around £30 million to capture Fellaini’s signature in the summer of 2013.
Fellaini’s resurgence has coincided with United’s impressive form recently. He has linked well with Ashley Young and Daley Blind down the left, and has been a constant menace for defenders in and around the penalty area. Spurs, Liverpool, Aston Villa and Man City have all struggled to contain him, and he is now showing the form, albeit belatedly, that earned him a transfer in the first place.
Using the 2012/13 season with Everton as an indication of some of Fellaini’s best form, and the 2013/14 as the Belgian’s lowest point in English football, we can see how he currently fares.
Firstly, with just six games remaining for United, Fellaini will still be four games off his 2012/13 tally, even if he starts all of the Red Devils’ matches. He has already surpassed his 2013/14 total, which was curtailed by injury and poor form.
Defensively, only his interceptions and clearances are higher under Moyes than Van Gaal, though this could be due to Moyes positioning him in central midfield rather than further up the park.
He has made more blocks, won more tackles and successfully contested 10% more aerial duels this season than last. Surprisingly, Fellaini only picked up two bookings last season, compared to four so far this season.
It’s also worth noting at this point that his defensive statistics for Everton in 2012/13 are all superior – bar a marginal difference in aerial duels – though the gap will be closed between now and the end of the season. There is still room for improvement.
It could be argued that if Fellaini maintains the form he has shown in the last four matches throughout the whole of next season, then he could eclipse his successful campaign for Everton.
The attacking stats again show the improvement in Fellaini this season. He has scored five goals, and while he hasn’t contributed an assist – last year he had one – he has made thirteen key passes to last year’s four. He has also created thirteen chances for his teammates.
Perhaps surprisingly, despite Fellaini making more successful passes, his percentage is lower this year than in 2013/14 – 85% to last year’s 88%. Fellaini is playing further up the field this season, with less space and less time on the ball in those areas a possible explanation for this anomaly.
Again, Fellaini’s stats in the majority are more impressive for Everton than they are for United, but with his confidence restored, expect these gaps to be closed this season, and possibly surpassed the next.
Fellaini is finally showing the form that made him such a destructive force in the Premier League. He provides a more direct option than the guile of Mata and Herrera on the right, giving United different options in the final third. Fellaini’s control with the ball at his feet is also underrated, and he has frequently fed in Young and Blind on the left-hand side.
The most impressive thing for me about Fellaini this season? His attitude and mental strength. It can’t be easy to be booed by your own support, but Fellaini hasn’t shirked his responsibilities or asked to leave. His desire to prove himself and winning mentality will be crucial to United, in this season, and the next.