On the 5th June, Manchester United announced they were to sign Fred from Shakhtar Donetsk. With this signing, they seemed to have brought balance to their midfield, as the Brazilian is the perfect middle ground between the creative Paul Pogba and the destructive Nemanja Matic. At the same time, stories were being leaked stating that Marouane Fellaini would not be signing a new deal and would be free to leave at the end of the season. The Belgian’s time was seemingly up.
That is until it wasn’t. On 29th June it was confirmed that Fellaini had signed a new two-year deal to remain at United. On a personal note, I was heartbroken, as I thought this may have finally been the moment the useless lump left the club.
But this does pose the question, how does Fellaini fit in at Manchester United? Rather than do what I usually do and moan about how pointless he is, I thought it would be much more professional to look at his stats. Maybe then I could objectively try to work out why he’s sticking around. Is it as simple as he’s really big?
I’ve used the stats at whoscored.com and compared Marouane Fellaini with the three other senior central midfielders: Paul Pogba, Nemanja Matic and Ander Herrera. I’ll look at the three stat categories that the site provides:
The Belgian averages 0.9 tackles a game, which is less than every other senior central midfielder who played for United last season. Ander Herrera had the most with 2.2 tackles a game, but even the defensively undisciplined Paul Pogba clocked in at 1.2 a game. Fellaini also only made 0.9 interceptions a game, which is far behind Nemanja Matic’s 1.8 interceptions and less than Ander Herrera’s 1.3 a game.
Bizarrely, he actually makes fewer fouls per game than any of the other midfielders, with 0.8. He’s also dribbled past far less than anyone else, only 0.3 times. Maybe his size means players choose to pass or have to double back?
Overall, Fellaini is okay defensively, however, Matic and Herrera are both better than him. The fact he doesn’t give away too many fouls and isn’t dribbled past is not enough to argue he should start above the others. Being difficult to run around is not what makes a good defensive midfielder.
When it comes to Marouane Fellaini’s creative ability, the stats aren’t too much better. He only attempts 24.6 passes a game, which is less than half of what Pogba and Matic try. Out of those passes, only 0.3 a game are key passes, which is less than half Nemanja Matic’s 0.7. Matic often plays at the base of a very deep United midfield, so it’s rather damning that Fellaini is so far behind the Serb. Pogba is way out in front with 1.4 a game.
His pass completion percentage is 85.2%, which is almost identical to Paul Pogba’s, yet far behind Matic and Herrera’s 87%. However, Fellaini only attempts 0.7 long balls per game compared to Pogba’s 4.1 and Matic’s 4.9, showing that while Fellaini may be completing a lot of passes, they’re nearly all short. Combine that with his lack of key passes shown above, the Belgian is risk-averse and creatively stunted when in possession.
If your passes are all that short and safe, your pass completion percentage should be much higher than 85%. Missing more than one in ten short passes isn’t good enough for a Champions League footballer. It would be tough to argue Fellaini should be chosen to keep the ball and recycle possession. Matic and Herrera are much more effective in this role.
Marouane Fellaini is the second highest scoring central midfielder in the United squad. His four goals betters Matic and Herrera’s returns, who have one goal between them. However, he’s not as potent as Paul Pogba, who weighed in with six goals.
I do feel it’s worth listing how these goals were scored. The first came off his thigh as Lingard attempted a shot against Leicester. His next two came at home to Palace, the first bundled in at the back post, the second a good header from the six-yard box. His final goal of the season was that backwards header to win the game against a young Arsenal side. He’s not exactly Bryan Robson.
Fellaini didn’t manage to make an assist all season, which isn’t surprising looking at the passing stats above. He also makes 0.3 dribbles per game, the lowest of all the central midfielders, showing that not only can he not create chances from passing, he rarely beats a man to take him out of the game.
Quite simply, Marouane Fellaini’s only function in this United side should be to come on late in the game to win headers. His stats in all other departments are not as good as his more able teammates. Van Gaal managed to work this out back in 2015, playing the Belgian in a strange inside left position for four glorious games when United looked like they might win the league. Fellaini’s only function during that period was to win headers. This, in turn, occupied opposition defenders that created space for other attackers. But United have moved on since then. If Fellaini was to play that role now, he would get in the way of Pogba, who is by far United’s most effective central midfielder.
Of course, all the above stats were comparing Fellaini to his three competitors from last season. Now United have Fred, surely destined to start the majority of fixtures. On top of that, McTominay is a year older with six month’s experience under his belt. Plus, Pereira and Fosu-Mensah have returned to the club and could make a push to feature in the first team.
All of this suggests that United should have let Marouane Fellaini go when they had the chance. Now that they’ve kept him, every other teammate bests him in at least one department. Except for one: being massive. Presumably, this is how Mourinho intends to use him going forward. Which could be incredibly effective, as long as he isn’t required to tackle, pass or create chances.
Personally, I think they should have let him go. The useless lump.