Fellaini, a Fine Blend of Physique and Finesse

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Fellaini – Reintroducing Central Midfielders to Old Trafford

Photograph courtesy of Blogs Bettor

Amidst the frantic to and ‘froing of deadline day, Manchester United welcomed the ‘fro to Old Trafford.  After a rather public series of disappointments last night, from the Ander Herrera ‘impostor’ debacle, to the derisory bid for De Rossi, and all the way back to Spain as we made enquiries for Real Madrid’s Khedira, the acquisition of Marouane Fellaini, from modest Everton, was little in the way of pacification for irate supporters.  For a player whom fans expressed their eagerness to have a month before, this was a tad unexpected.  But this was hardly helped by the seemingly haphazard transfer strategy illustrated by Chief Executive, Ed Woodward.

The Belgian came along, despite solid murmurings all summer, as a postscript to the transfer deadline drama.  He drove to Everton’s training ground yesterday evening to personally hand in his transfer request and plead with Roberto Martinez to let him go.  By 10.55 pm, 5 minutes before the deadline, he was signed.  At 27 Million Pounds, he cost 4 Million pounds more than he would have had his release clause been activated before it expired earlier in the summer (31st of July), yet another example of poor business strategy from the business side of the club.  Nevertheless, arrive he has, and eagerly so.  The transfer request he handed in on the last day at least illustrates the yearning of a quality player for whom ‘it is a dream come true’ to play for Manchester United.

For all the criticism they have got, Moyes and Woodward have already gone more than a step better than Sir Alex and David Gill did in the last 6 years by strengthening undoubtedly the weakest area of the Manchester United squad.

Now that he’s signed, and the window is closed, how he will affect the team needs to examined.

The Problem – A Soft Centre

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Weak at the Heart

Photograph courtesy of Truly Red

Anderson’s drive and natural exuberance are tempered by his lack of fitness and composure.  Often, he plays like a player still learning…without progress.  With his raw attributes, he should be the ideal partner for the calmer, more static Michael Carrick.  For now, Tom Cleverley is the favoured partner (the only other reasonable option; mind you, I use ‘reasonable’ tentatively) and as so harshly indicated by Jamie Redknapp, has ‘never dominated a game’.

Ryan Giggs, despite his unmatchable legacy at Manchester United, and his qualifiedly successful conversion to a central midfielder, is at risk of muddying whatever good memories fans have of him.  An inept display against Liverpool characterised by sloth in thought and action, and wastefulness in possession unbecoming of a midfielder, merely confirmed what we all have known for some time – our new coach needs retiring.

Chest Worth More than Tom & Ando

Of dominating games, Marouane Fellaini knows a fair bit about.  The Red Devils suffered at his chest in the first game of last season.  His header, soaring above the fish-out-of-water Michael Carrick, was an encapsulation of all his good qualities – an eye for goal, aerial strength, tenacity and desire.  Throughout the game, he roamed and drifted, bullied and harried, displayed deft touches all round.  Oh, and that chest of his.  I haven’t seen a player ever control the ball so frequently with his chest in 90 minutes.  Immaculately each time, even with markers tugging and grappling to get round his afro, long punts, clearances and arrowed passes were killed the deftest of ‘pecs’.  As ‘coming out’ games go, that was a seminal game for Fellaini.

 ‘Dominating Manchester United at Goodison’

By the end of the season, predominantly playing behind the striker, he had scored 12 goals for Everton in all competitions, including a classic headed goal against Manchester City.

He brings a distinct goal-threat to Old Trafford, one sorely lacking in the current squad’s midfield.  However, it is unlikely we will see him start from a default attacking midfielder position.  Options such as Wayne Rooney, Shinji Kagawa, Ryan Giggs and possibly Van persie seem more natural fits, particularly given the Belgian’s much needed utility elsewhere.

Last season, he and his then manager, Moyes, made it evident that while successful higher up the pitch, his best position, as he matured, would be deeper in midfield.  “I think as he matures he might grow into a deeper role but currently he does give us a different attacking option and has scored quite a few goals so we have been happy with him playing further forward this season.”  The player himself said he ‘thinks…I am a defensive midfielder’.  What we saw last season, which has continued this time round, is an increased maturity.  Fewer bookings, more dominant displays (mention has to be made of the Shawcross punch however – rush of blood to the head?) and a greater tactical flexibility have marked him out as one of the best players in the league.

Bite**

After Manchester United’s recent defeat to Liverpool, much was made of how many more tackles Liverpool made, 31 – 17, nearly double the amount.  Tom Cleverley, despite completing the most passes on the pitch, completed only 3 tackles, 1 interception and made no clearances.  For the more energetic of his pairing with Michael Carrick, it’s a total that hardly inspires confidence.  In comparison, Carrick made the same number of tackles but 4 interceptions.

New signing, Fellaini brings bite and aggression to midfield.  In his first season, he became notorious for picking up bookings – a whopping 12.  Admittedly, this was largely due to his dangerous style of challenging for headers but it did illustrate his combative side.  Since then, he had adapted exceptionally well, averaging just under 6 bookings a season in the last 4 seasons.  More impressively, in 2011/2012, the last season he played predominantly as a central midfielder at Everton, he was booked just 6 times while also being the 2nd most frequent tackler in the league (just behind Moussa Dembele).

In 3 Premier League games this season, he has been excellent playing deeper in midfield for Everton.  Averaging nearly 5 tackles per game, 1 interception and a whopping 6 clearances (standing at 6’4, he fully maximises his aerial prowess) per game, he has helped Everton dominate the central zones in all their games.  Although these have come against Norwich, West Brom and Cardiff but these figures are hardly to be sniffed at.  In August, in a friendly against France, he stood out in a tight contest.  In the much vaunted Belgium side of today, he plays a key role deep in midfield alongside another ‘fro bro, Axel Witsel, as they combine their physical qualities with excellent technique to ensure that Belgium remains superior both on offence and in defence.  Against a very physical France midfield, he made 5 tackles and 5 interceptions, by far the most on the pitch, while completing 3 clearances.

Passing**

Despite being aerially excellent, and superb at tackling and recovering the football, his ability on the ball should not be sniffed at.  While his chest control is excellent, he has the ability to exert control and influence on possession for his sides.    Averaging 74 passes per game in the first 3 games of this season, he has taken on a more traditional midfield role – and excelled at it.  Even more impressively, he has completed nearly 90% of these, an excellent rate by any standard.  In 2011/2012, the Belgian international completed more passes than any other player at Everton, a sign of his instrumentality to their approach and play.

Scoring**

Marouane Fellaini

Vaccinating United

Photograph courtesy of Daily Record

11 goals from 31 Premier League Appearances, including 6 headed goals, the 2nd most in the division, mark him out as potentially significant source of goals.  His height, allied to his svelte touch, contributed to his impressive record.  For comparison, Shinji Kagawa was Manchester United’s highest scoring midfielder with 6 goals, 3 of which came in a game against Norwich.  After Kagawa, Tom Cleverley ‘top-scored’ with 2 goals.

Fellaini’s goalscoring was certainly helped by his higher positioning, particularly illustrated by the fact that in three seasons before 2012/2013, he scored 11 goals, 1 less than last season’s output.  Nevertheless, one season, 2010/2011, was cut short in February by injury.  In his first season, playing as an attacking midfielder, he scored 9 goals, once again indicating his usefulness higher up the pitch.  His aerial ability would certainly complement the Red Devils’ newfound prowess from set-pieces and alongside Nemanja Vidic, which should cause problems for opposition defences.

 Next?

What generates disappointment is invariably expectation.  As Ed Woodward went about business like Wenger on steroids, pricing like different rules of market pricing applied to him, all this exposed fans to hope.  Herrera was signed…then he was not.  Thiago was signed – apparently his father had visited Old Trafford – then that failed.  On the last day, every offer was gleefully reported by the media, thus exposing the club to, in hindsight, inevitable embarrassment.

Nevertheless, the signing of Marouane Fellaini is a significant one.  In 2 weeks, he should walk into Manchester United’s starting XI, bringing with him that unique blend of qualities that are so in demand at Manchester United.  This is Belgium’s 1st choice central midfielder Manchester United has signed, a reason to celebrate.  Will he improve the side?  Most certainly ‘yes’.  Is he a better footballer than the other options envisaged?  Possibly so, particularly with his extensive experience of the hustle and bustle that is a Premier League midfield battle.

His tactical flexibility, made possible by his wide range of attributes, is patent to see.  At Everton, a team famed for not being afraid to take a direct approach if need be, he was a more than capable target, playing just behind the striker, for long balls and crosses.  Under Roberto Martinez, a manager very much as Spanish in his style of play as his name suggests, Fellaini has been asked to drop deeper into midfield and carry out more traditional responsibilities such as passing and dictating the tempo of games – he has not disappointed and instead, has excelled in his passing and recovery of the ball.

If David Moyes sorts out his team selections, all of a sudden the team looks very solid, with Fellaini and Carrick providing the perfect balance of steel, calm passing and finesse in midfield just behind one of Messrs Wayne Rooney or the Evil Shinji Kagawa. With the club hierarchy yet to provide answers to the question-seeking masses of disappointed fans, they have provided, and credit should be given to them for it, what could potentially be the answer to our midfield malaise.  Despite skepticism, it is certainly arguable  that all of a sudden, our fortunes do look a bit better.

** Statistics courtesy of whoscored.com