Tom Cleverley is feeling a little hard done by. “I feel I’ve been made a scapegoat a little bit,” complained the midfielder last week, arguing that the persistent blame he has received for Manchester United’s horrendous 2013/14 season has been unfair.
Yet poor Tom seems to be talking about the wrong man. He has, after all, turned in 31 largely underwhelming performances at the heart of United’s midfield this season, making any attempts to justify his meek inability to stamp his authority on games a little wide of the mark.
Indeed, his comments seem better suited to the plight of Marouane Fellaini, whose hefty summer transfer fee has often seen him blamed for David Moyes’ difficult start to the season, despite him having made just eight appearances for his new club.
Fellaini has suffered badly from injuries during his brief United career, often playing through the pain in an attempt to make an early impact at Old Trafford. He has suffered from ongoing back and finger injuries, as well as the wrist problem that required the operation which led to him missing his new club’s last 15 games. Fellaini was due to return a few weeks ago – his recovery from his operation having been advanced by a set of custom-made wrist braces – but was forced to sit out of the games with Fulham and Arsenal due to a hamstring problem.
Fellaini has struggled for rhythm in the eight appearances he has made for United so far, often appearing sluggish in possession and short of the confidence required to make his presence known in midfield. Yet after missing a large chunk of his debut season, Fellaini will now be desperate to impose his game on a United team which has done it’s best to demonstrate it’s desperate need for his presence in his absence. After all, United’s worst form of the season has fallen almost precisely during the period that Fellaini has sat out through injury.
United’s supporters can also expect a boost in the big Belgian’s form now that the burden of being Moyes’ only Manchester United signing has been removed. Old Trafford now has a new hero, former Chelsea forward Juan Mata, who has been entrusted – fairly or not – to rescue United’s season. How Mata will respond to this pressure remains to be seen, but his arrival can only aid Fellaini’s attempts to settle at his new club.
Further motivation to perform should come from the dawning of the 2014 World Cup. Fellaini will be desperate to make the most of his remaining season at club level in order to make it into a Belgian team highly fancied to go far in Brazil this summer. Although he has already notched up 47 caps and 7 goals for Belgium, the strength in depth of his national side means he will need to turn in club performances of the highest standard if he is to play a prominent role for his side in Brazil.
Turning his season around will require substantial willpower, luck and backing from his manager, but Belgium captain Vincent Kompany has expressed his faith that his compatriot can once again find the form that secured his move to Old Trafford in the first place. His club manager also hopes that Fellaini’s time to shine has arrived: “Injury has given more of a chance to settle down and with not quite as much pressure on him to perform. We hope he will now get opportunities to show what he can do.”
Yet despite Fellaini’s proven Premier League pedigree and substantial motivation to succeed, it remains true that Fellaini’s precise role in the United midfield is still unclear.
Fellaini starred most prominently in a more advanced role for Everton last season, where his physicality and directness caused persistent problems for Premier League defences. Operating with the guaranteed defensive solidity of the likes of Darren Gibson behind him, Fellaini grew into one of the league’s most potent attacking threats, a guaranteed nuisance for defenders who created numerous chances and scored 12 goals.
Following a bruising encounter against Arsenal, his former Everton teammate Michael Arteta suggested that Fellaini was almost unplayable in an advanced role. Indeed, Manchester United followers will be more aware of this trait than most, with the Belgian having scored the winning goal to cap a masterful performance against the Reds at Old Trafford last season. It is strange, then, that Fellaini appears to have been purchased mainly to play as the deepest lying and most defensively responsible midfielder at United, especially when Moyes himself benefited so substantially from his prowess as a forward during his time at Everton.
Fellaini clearly has a lot to offer from a deeper position. Perhaps most usefully at this stage of a harrowing season, he could well prove to be the combative, hassling presence his team have been crying out for in the centre of the park. Fellaini mostly played deeper in midfield during his first season at Everton, where he had an impressive tackle success rate of 84.9%, and could turn out to be the man capable of providing the necessary protection to United’s highly frail back four.
It is almost inconceivable, for example, that the big Belgian would have allowed himself to be out-muscled in the central midfield duel which led to Fulham’s equalising goal in the way that Michael Carrick was two weeks ago. He may have even picked up a red card for his efforts, but Fellaini is a streetwise and gnarly individual, who resolutely refuses to be bullied in midfield. United’s current midfield is decidedly lightweight – a player prepared to kick the opposition around a bit would likely be warmly welcomed by the club’s despairing fan base.
Fellaini also offers a greater goalscoring threat from midfield. The side’s midfielders have scored just 16 goals this season, with just five coming from central positions. His forward-thinking directness could be exactly the boost that United need – one needs only to look at Cleverley and Carrick’s dire backwards passing in the final minutes of last week’s fixture with Arsenal to appreciate just how much his side could benefit from an injection of directness.
Fellaini has professed that his favoured role is as a deep lying midfielder. “I’m happy with my season, although I didn’t play in my best position,” he argued before he left Everton last year. “I’m not a No. 10. In the future I want to play as a 6 or an 8. From there I can create danger and score goals.” Although he has failed to totally convince in this position so far in his career, he possesses the attributes required to make a great success of the position he seems determined to make his own.
Even when taking into account the fickle short term memory banks of the typical football fan, the speed with which Fellaini has been written off by Manchester United’s followers is bizarre. Fortunately for the Belgian, he clearly possesses the playing talent required to impose himself as a player at Old Trafford. His injury problems and the difficulties of adapting to life at a new club mean he deserves his mediocre early season form to be forgotten. Fellaini’s Manchester United career starts now.