Marouane Fellaini is not one of the popular members of Jose Mourinho‘s squad amongst Manchester United fans. Any tactical analysis of Fellaini’s impact on a game often attracts derision from a section of the supporters. Cold statistics say the Belgian has been at best a squad member during his time at Old Trafford. But the amount of Manchester United fans who didn’t want him at the club this season was staggering.
The Belgian has been a divisive figure, despite his tactical value, at Old Trafford since his arrival in 2013. The 30-year-old didn’t help his diminishing popularity amongst the Old Trafford faithful with some of his remarks over the summer.
He finally signed on fresh terms with Manchester United, much to the relief of his manager. However, it did little to convince his naysayers amongst the club’s supporters.
Mourinho needed a win at Burnley to shut up the growing clamour of him losing his job at Manchester United. He went with some of his trusted lieutenants to get him three points. So out went the club’s only big money signing of the summer Fred from the eleven for Fellaini.
The fear for most Manchester United fans was that the manager was deploying his plan B from the first minute. The general consensus was Fellaini would play just behind Lukaku, with the others expected to pump the ball up.
However, Mourinho pulled out a different trick out of his bag and played the Belgian alongside another of his voices on the pitch, Nemanja Matic.
Jose Mourinho Goes Against The Modern Norms
Fellaini’s ability to carry out instructions on the pitch makes him a valuable asset for managers. Together with Matic, he formed a physical and robust shield for the much-maligned Chris Smalling and Victor Lindelof, with the Belgian often playing as the deepest midfielder.
This was Mourinho going against the modern practice of playing ball playing schemers at the base of the midfield. While other managers play creators such as Jorginho at Chelsea, the Manchester United boss deployed his Fellaini-shaped destroyer.
And the result, the individual statistics and the tactical analysis of the game suggest that it worked at Turf Moore.
With Matic, Fellaini, Smalling and Lindelof forming a defensive quartet, it allowed Antonio Valencia and Luke Shaw to bomb forward. With the defence protected, Paul Pogba had the freedom to focus on his attacking talents.
Chris Wood would also have been happy to finally get Fellaini off his back at the end of the game.
The Man-Marking And The Tactical Job On Chris Wood
The New Zealand International, a more than decent centre-forward, had his eyes on Lindelof. Fellaini made sure the Swede was not left isolated against the former Leeds man.
He was at hand every time a long ball was aimed at Wood and he won most of the headers. Fellaini often dropped in as an auxiliary centre-half while Matic played ahead of him.
There were instances during the game when the Serbian, known for his defensive ability in midfield, bombed forward and made those Fellaini-like runs to the back-post, expecting a cross. The Belgian remained disciplined and stayed behind to clear out any counter-attacking opportunities for Burnley.
The home side’s aversion to using the flanks until the final quarter of the game helped Fellaini and Matic. They remained narrow and snuffed out any opportunities for Wood or Hendrick by winning most of their aerial duels.
Fellaini made seven clearances, compared to Matic’s three, which is a testament to the discipline and tactical nous he showed for the role. The Belgian also won six of his ten aerial duals and made eleven interceptions as he continued to shield the back four.
With a trip to in-form Watford after the break, Mourinho could deploy the same midfield axis at Vicarage Road as the Hornets are also known for being a physically-robust team. The Manchester United manager has more or less made it clear that he cannot trust his defence.
And it seems in the Fellaini-Matic partnership, he could have stumbled onto a solution albeit a short-term one.
The Pragmatic Tool of Manchester United Managers
Mourinho drafted the Belgian into the team when he desperately needed a win and the midfielder played a key role in stopping the rot.
However, in the eyes of many Fellaini remains everything that is wrong with modern Manchester United, who are drifting away from their old traditions. For many Fellaini is also the player who stops them from moving forward, a blunt and pragmatic instrument. The thinking is as long as he is at the club there will always be a temptation for the manager to deploy him as the attacking plan B or the destroyer in the middle, rather than adapt to a more progressive approach.
Fellaini is a conundrum but for some reason, he has enjoyed the trust of all the three post-Sir Alex Ferguson managers at Old Trafford. Whether it says more about what Manchester United are at the moment than his quality, is a different debate.