At around 17:40 this past Sunday a curious thing happened. In Manchester, in Old Trafford to be exact, the third official raised his board with the numbers 31 upon them to indicate that Marouane Fellaini was to exit the pitch. As one, the Old Trafford crowd got to their feet to give a standing ovation to their new, unlikely hero. This was the Belgian’s moment to bask in the new adoration and respect he is now afforded at Old Trafford for the crucial role he had just played in Manchester United’s 4-2 win over Manchester City and the club’s stunning run of form this year. After just under two seasons with Manchester United, Marouane Fellaini has finally been resurrected.
If we go back to the 3rd of September last year it is almost impossible to imagine that the lanky Belgian would have ever received such a warm reception by the United faithful. His arrival came under difficult circumstances. The first signing of Sir Alex Ferguson’s successor, David Moyes, Fellaini was seen as a symbol of his manager: not good enough and overawed at the stature of Manchester United. To add to the fans frustration, Fellaini had a release clause of £23.5m in his Everton deal until 31 July which came and passed. He was eventually signed for £27.5m with minutes left in the transfer window.
His time at Everton had seen Fellaini become one of the most feared midfielders in the Premier League. Signed in September 2008 from Standard Liège for an initial transfer fee of £15 million, the Belgian soon became known for his aggressive and combative style of play. Comfortable in either the defensive midfield role, cleaning up attack’s with his tough tackling, or in a more forward position, using his strength and power to shrug off defenders and make space for teammates. The year before his move, United themselves were on the receiving end of a Fellaini masterclass. In the first game of the 2012/13 season, the defending champions showed up to Goodison Park and lost to a goal from a rampant and excellent Fellaini who proved he was comfortable rubbing shoulders with the likes of Wayne Rooney or Michael Carrick.
It was no surprise the Moyes made a move for his former player when he became the new manager of Manchester United. United were in need of a midfielder, the position had long been seen as a weakness and they needed of a new player due to the retirement of Paul Scholes. But United had been linked with the likes of Barcelona’s Cesc Fabregas and Bayern Munich’s Toni Kroos. When the tall Belgian with wild hair showed up at United’s training ground it was seen as another let down.
Things did not well for Fellaini during his debut season, but then again, nothing seemed to go David Moyes’ way during his one and only season in the dug-out at Old Trafford. Particular low points included his sending off against Real Sociedad, with the Belgian receiving a second yellow card after a rash tackle on David Zurutuza in the game’s closing stages, and in the Champions League quarter final against Bayern Munich. Fellaini was so poor against Bayern that Spanish newspaper AS refused to give him a rating. During the match the midfielder lost 83 per cent of his aerial battles and lost 76 per cent of his tackles.
On 22 April 2014, with four games remaining, Moyes was sacked as manager, less than a year into his six-year contract. His last game, two days earlier, had ended in 2–0 defeat at Fellaini’s former club Everton. 40-year-old player-coach Ryan Giggs was placed in charge for United’s remaining games in which Fellaini made only one appearance. The Telegraph placed Fellaini first in their 10 worst transfers of the 2013-14 season, something few would have disputed. Manchester United finished the season in seventh place, United’s lowest finish since 1990, and meant that they had missed out on European qualification for the first time since 1989–90 (when English clubs were still banned from European competitions due to the Heysel disaster of 1985). It looked like Fellaini’s time at Old Trafford was up.
Enter new manager Louis van Gaal. The Dutchman took the reins of Manchester United following a surprisingly successful run with the Netherlands in the 2014 World Cup. It was assumed that Fellaini would be moved along. A season-long loan to Napoli seemed to be imminent during the summer only for an ankle injury picked up in training to cause Napoli to pull out of the transfer. The Belgian remained in the United dressing room but his season got off to a rocky start with ironic cheers from his own fans in an August friendly against Valencia.
But soon Fellaini started to improve, showing the first signs of encouragement since he was signed. He did not start a game for United until the end of October, but his form has become so good recently that those who work with him have been falling over themselves to praise him. He scored his first United goal, a volley at West Brom on Oct. 20, which would earn a draw and him an extended run in the side. In United’s next game against Chelsea, he was a surprise starter but proceeded to cover more ground than any player on the pitch. He was a superior player to Cesc Fabregas, the midfielder United had tried to sign before him. From then on, he became a fixture with long stretches as a starter. When Fellaini snuck to the back post to head home Ashley Young’s soft cross on Sunday, it was his third Premier League match-winner since January 17.
He has emerged as a potent attacking weapon under Van Gaal, used as a second striker behind Rooney. Last season, the Belgian had been used as a holding midfielder and looked lost, his displays were timid and, at times, technically woeful. He sometimes seemed unable to simply pass the ball. Fellaini has now become a symbol of success for Louis van Gaal’s new and dominant Manchester United side, who should now be assured of a top-four finish and a return to the Champions League next season. He has gone from Old Trafford scapegoat to one of the most dangerous forwards in Europe.
Fellaini was arguably the best United performer on Sunday. Overpowered and outclassed by Yaya Toure in his first Manchester derby 19 months ago, the Belgian reversed the roles against the Ivorian, helping United to dominate in the middle and down the left side. Fellaini adds balance, his passing has improved substantially and while he’s started under half of United’s 32 league games, he’s become a valued member of a now settled side. He is also beginning to find the back of the net with more regularity – his header for United’s second vs. City was his ninth for the season for club and country. This win felt like more than just another three points for United; it was a cathartic and seismic moment for a club still nursing the scars of last season. The win took United four points above City, still the reigning champions, and it allows them to start looking forward to next season with genuine optimism.
There will be a temptation to think of Fellaini as just a vehicle to get United into the Champions League, that when it comes to actually playing in Europe next season, he’ll be cast aside. But seeing a 6ft 4ins midfielder charging towards the back post to get on the end of a cross will concern Spanish, Italian and German teams just as much as it worried City on Sunday. Having played a key part in getting United to the next level under Van Gaal, he should still have a role to play once they are there.
Once a symbol of the turmoil of the post-Alex Ferguson Manchester United he is now seen a key member of van Gaal’s new, positive side, and is finally showing that he can be one of the most dangerous players in the Premier League. He has assumed the role Angel Di Maria was supposed to: he has become the big-game player, the talisman that Tottenham Hotspur, Liverpool and City could not contain. He is in the team ahead of the most expensive player in the history of British football, ahead of one of the most potent goalscorers of his generation, in Radamel Falcao, ahead, potentially, of Robin van Persie when the Dutchman is fully fit again. The real Marouane Fellaini has well and truly been resurrected.