Once again, a Manchester United match became the Jose Mourinho show. Needing a win to guarantee passage to the knockout stages, Marouane Fellaini rescued a precious three points in added time. It had been yet another insipid, limp display that didn’t in truth deserve a victor. That didn’t stop the United manager once again falling back upon statistics to defend his reputation, or from kicking then throwing water bottles in theatrical melodrama after Fellaini’s late strike.
After the game, he repeated his party trick of turning attention away from the performance of his players.
“For some of my lovers, I just want to say, for the ones that like stats: 14 seasons in the Champions League, 14 times qualified through the group phase. Never one of my teams stay behind in the group phase. The season I didn’t play Champions League, I won the Europa League. It’s a good record.”
As Chris Sutton argued in his BBC Sport column, the performance didn’t match Mourinho’s admittedly impressive consistency. There was a rare start for Fred, with three enforcers in the middle of the park. Nemanja Matic resumed his customary role in front of the defence, but Fellaini’s deployment was intriguing. Rather than sitting as a defensive midfielder, he was given license to roam further forward.
Here we will analyse how this affected Manchester United as a team.
Fellaini is not predominantly known for his footwork and passing ability. In the Premier League, he attempts 55.2 passes per 90 minutes, with just 1.4 of those long balls. This is not surprising given his usual role as destroyer. It places him 35th in total accurate short passes among central midfielders. Against Young Boys, however, he registered 65 passes; only Fred and Matic made significantly more.
Mourinho has not shied away from championing the tall Belgian as one of his key weapons. The constant chopping and changing of personnel has left many midfielders struggling to understand what their role actually is. Fellaini was a dangerous predator for Everton, so perhaps it should come as no surprise that his attacking threat is being exploited.
With Matic and Fred anchoring the midfield rather rigidly, Fellaini enjoyed the freedom of the pitch. Mourinho knew that Young Boys would not be pressing intensely, so could afford to give a little more positional freedom.
You can see above how he touched the ball evenly across the width and depth of the pitch. There is no clear definition of area to his touches, horizontally or vertically. This is very unusual for a player in a Mourinho team, given his proclivity for rigid organisation.
As if to underline his reinvention, Fellaini only made one tackle all game. His robust presence is a common theme of most performances. Although he didn’t commit to challenges on the ground, he was the second-highest United player in aerial challenges won. Notice the grouping of those challenges below: only one is behind the centre-circle. Defending set pieces is often a Fellaini task, but here he left even more of that work to designated header Chris Smalling.
Marouane Fellaini has little chance of becoming a delicate playmaker, but might offer a slightly unusual way out. The stereotype of a tall, strong midfielder is that they must be defensively position, or at least thrown up late on. Fellaini’s freedom to adapt his role offered a slightly more unorthodox use of his talents.
It is certainly not a long-term answer for resurrecting this dire Manchester United side. As an occasional option to unsettle opponents, however, it is an interesting alternative to the pigeon-holed Fellaini we know.
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