Fellaini: I'm a player who knows his qualities
Even the most cursory glance at Manchester United’s history shows that functionality breeds success. Through homegrown heroes to star signings, be they attack-minded or defensively inclined, those who do their job for the team invariably thrive.
Now in his sixth season at Old Trafford, having signed a new contract extension last summer, Marouane Fellaini is more important to Manchester United than he has ever been, and there is no hidden complexity to the giant Belgian’s significance to Jose Mourinho: he does what is asked of him, whatever that may be.
“I am very happy with him,” the Portuguese boss said earlier this season.
“He is one of the players that has improved from last season. He’s playing well in different positions.
“You can feel his commitment, his heart and his happiness to be at the club, and to stay at the club, and to play for the club. Clearly, he is showing that famous thing of the team being more important than one of us and he has sacrificed himself for the team.
He is being more defensive in some matches and then being almost like a striker in others. I’m really happy with Marouane’s stability and performances. He is giving us quality and simplicity. He is playing simple and well.”
Fellaini recently referred to himself as:
“A player who knows his qualities. I know what I can do, and what I can’t.”
The modest Belgian would never bracket himself alongside many of his illustrious forebears for innate football wizardry, but his understanding of his own ability and where it fits within his team’s approach is one of the main reasons he is a key component for club and country.
The ability Fellaini has is distilled through graft and spirit. He has repeatedly played through the pain barrier since his 2013 move to Old Trafford from Everton, while the heartfelt celebrations which greet goals from his team-mates emphatically underline his commitment to the club. He rampages about the field hell-bent on shaping the result in his team’s favour.
Moreover, his impact on play is indisputable. With United trailing Newcastle by two goals at half-time in October, Fellaini was introduced at half-time. The Belgian’s presence not only allowed Paul Pogba to drop deeper and control the play, it also gained the Reds a firmer foothold in the visitors’ danger areas. After United roared back to snatch a 3-2 win, Magpies winger Matt Ritchie admitted:
“When they brought Fellaini on, it made it hard to put pressure on the ball. We were pegged in and couldn’t get out.”
The midfielder’s deployment as an auxiliary attacker is an obvious solution in times of need, but his influence has been just as telling in various roles this term, and his versatility has been more apparent this season than any other. Whether as an attacking focal point, an orthodox central midfielder or a defensive screen, his performances have been of a consistently high standard despite operating all over the field.
“It’s always good to have a player like Marouane in front of you,” says Victor Lindelof.
“He gives you a bit of security, and he’s a player who works really hard and helps everyone on the pitch.
“His versatility is very useful for us as a team because we can use him in various roles, and for a player it’s always good to be able to play in different positions. It’s also showing his qualities as a footballer because he can play these different positions and switch his thinking for different roles; there aren’t many players who can do that. It’s a great thing for him to have.
“I wasn’t surprised by that when I came, to be honest. I’d seen him play before – I think I played against him for Sweden against Belgium – so I knew how much quality he has and I think anyone who knows football can see the things he can do on the pitch.”
That is why David Moyes, Louis van Gaal and Mourinho have all consistently appreciated the value of Fellaini, even if his debut campaign at Old Trafford was, in the player’s own words:
“Not a good experience, but an important one to live through. I came out of it stronger. I passed the test. I won my place. I won trophies.”
Fellaini has contributed substantially to all three major honours United have won during his five years at Old Trafford, scoring in the semi-finals of our FA Cup, League Cup and Europa League successes while notching assists in two finals. The midfielder’s contract extension last summer was the retention of a player versed in winning, sacrificing and functioning at Old Trafford while making key contributions at vital times. The 30-year-old signed the deal while playing a starring role in Belgium’s run to third place at the World Cup finals in Russia, where his international manager, Roberto Martinez, was vehement in his praise of the midfielder’s attributes.
“I think he is a player that you have to work with to appreciate what he really brings,” Martinez told Goal during the tournament.
“I think he gets underestimated in his technical ability. I think he is a footballer that has got a level of technical control and ball control a lot higher than people think.
“He was born to compete. He is a winner. I think he finds football as a good opportunity to show how life should be. His interpretation of life is the way he runs the football game. As a team player he always sees that every action is the end of the world and that makes him a warrior and someone that every coach and manager would love to have in his team.”
That unyielding dedication to doing his job extends to Fellaini’s displays each day at the Aon Training Complex, where his bustling, uncompromising style does not discriminate between opponents.
“I enjoy facing him in training because he’s a tough opponent,” smiles Lindelof.
“He always works very hard, always gives 100 per cent in every duel, so it’s very good to train against him because you always have to be on your toes and totally focused.”
Historically, the Belgian’s enthusiastic approach has yielded disciplinary issues, but his experience has been accompanied by a far wiser use of his physical advantage over most opponents. Of the 30 bookings and three red cards he has received since moving to Old Trafford, just one has come since the start of the 2017/18 campaign, his name last taken by a referee on Bonfire Night last year.
The deeply engrained and longstanding impression of Fellaini as a target man prone to delving into the dark arts is at an end, with his importance to the United cause now glaringly apparent. Mourinho can call upon an intelligent, versatile team player and ask him to dictate the pattern of a game by carrying out a wide variety of detailed tactical instructions from a number of different stations, knowing that his no.27 will do it.
“If the manager puts me on the substitutes’ bench and says ‘play 30 minutes’, I will do it,” said Fellaini.
“I fight to play every game, but I work for the manager.”
There is no secret to why Marouane Fellaini is now thriving at Manchester United. When he has a job to do, he does it, showcasing the kind of functionality which has only ever led to success at Old Trafford.
This story was first published in United Review for the Everton match. Copies are available from www.manutd.com/programme.