COMMENT: He didn’t touch the ball. He was barely anywhere near it. But without him on the Turin pitch, Manchester United weren’t winning that game at Juventus. And potentially, they wouldn’t today be preparing for a round 16 Champions League clash with PSG.
But that was Marouane Fellaini. Now, as of Friday, once of Manchester United. But that was the Belgian all over. He did make a difference. That late winner in Turin. Whoever it was in the end. Ashley Young. Paul Pogba. Alex Sandro. Whoever legitimately managed the final touch. The ball wasn’t getting to that back post without the presence of Fellaini. Knees. Elbows. He threw it all at Giorgio Chiellini, Andrea Barzagli and, oh, also the ball. And it did the job. He did the job. Which was why none of the three United managers he played for ever uttered a bad word against him.
They had plenty to say about his teammates. Take your pick. But to a man, David Moyes, Louis van Gaal and Jose Mourinho always wanted Fellaini involved. And the same can be said about his teammates.
Paul Pogba summed up the feeling in a social media post: “My bro I wish you all the best in your new club. I’m gonna miss you here man thanks for all the advice, for your help. Only (a) few real brother(s) in football and you are one of them. Love my bro.”
Gangly. Awkward. Some are claiming Fellaini was the antithesis of United. That he epitomised an era of mediocrity post- Sir Alex Ferguson. But there was an excellent footballer in that No27 shirt. One, who on his day and played to his strengths, was unbeatable.
For all the support he received from Mourinho over their two and a half years together, the peak of his United career came under Van Gaal. Before Zlatan Ibrahimovic. Before even Marcus Rashford. Van Gaal employed Fellaini as a virtual battering ram No10. Just as Moyes had done when they were together at Everton. Exploiting his size and unique chest control, Van Gaal – for all his palava about English football’s kick and rush style – built his team’s attack around the big Belgian.
However for Fellaini playing as a target man wasn’t enough. He saw himself as a midfielder. Box-to-box. But without the necessary leg speed. Nor the passing ability. The Belgian was never going to find a role for himself in United’s midfield – no matter the efforts he and Mourinho made.
If Van Gaal was the peak, the lowpoint came against Tottenham last season. A moment that truly encapsulated Fellaini’s Old Trafford career. At fault for a late equaliser at Everton the previous week, Fellaini was jeered mercilessly by his own fans as he made a substitute’s appearance for the victory over Spurs. It was a flashpoint that shocked many. United fans can be passive these days. Quiet. But they don’t boo their own. However they did that day. The jeers reaching the point to where United teammates appealed to the home crowd to stop. Mourinho would later dedicate the win to the Belgian as stories emerged in the aftermath of the shock and disappointment felt by the players after the incident.
For this column, Fellaini was an asset for United. A one-off. Not the footballing talent of Mark Hughes. Nor the goalscoring instinct of Joe Jordan. But he possessed the same enthusiasm for the physical battle. Like Hughes and Jordan, he’d always make his marker earn his money. And to be fair to the Belgian, no centre-forward has boasted a greater method of chest control in a United shirt.
But what upset this column was a lack of loyalty shown by Fellaini last season. There was a contract on the table. On recommendation from his manager. But even after the way Mourinho, in the face of heavy criticism from fans and media, had consistently jumped to his defence. Fellaini refused to consider the deal. Mourinho even convinced the board to afford him an exemption, tabling a two-year deal plus another 12-months – despite him being the wrong side of 30. But still Fellaini shopped himself around… until finally committing to terms last July.
Given his dithering last year, the move to Shandong Luneng is no surprise. It can be argued for this season, his heart was never truly in it. If it was. If he really wanted to remain a United player. Fellaini would’ve stuck it out to June. To wait and see what would happen with Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, the caretaker manager.
Instead, he’s jumped. But again, for any outside criticism of this move, Fellaini has already won over those inside his new club. Yes, he’s joined Shandong Luneng on bigger terms. But it’s not the double your money deal being claimed.
Instead, try a £20,000-a-week pay-rise on his old £150,000-a-week wages at United. Better yet, try sacrificing a signing-on bonus and an extra couple of million in salary so to help Shandong Luneng fund the necessary £8m fee United were demanding. A gesture that has gone down very well with local fans, where the football club will present Fellaini as a New Year’s gift this week.
At Shandong Luneng they’re celebrating. A world class name on an average foreign star’s salary. They’re already saying if Fellaini can meet on-field expectations he could be the best dollar for dollar signing made by the Chinese Premier League in years.
Finally some appreciation? Nah. Fellaini was always appreciated by those that mattered. And it’s an emotion many of his former teammates will be feeling as they prepare to face PSG next week.