There is a general stigma that surrounds a certain type of player in the Premier League.
An ethereal drifter, capable of the extraordinary at the click of a finger, but equally proficient at staying on the periphery, or worse, for large periods of a game.
Someone who is (harshly) perceived to care very little about anything on a football pitch other than when they receive the ball, and even then their carefree attitude might creep in, leading to an unnecessary exhibition of skill that loses possession. Someone like, I don’t know, Mesut Ozil or Paul Pogba.
In a similar vein, and from similar sources, there is also often a deep skepticism around an import who has largely excelled elsewhere, but is yet to show himself fit for the English game. Take the old adages about Lionel Messi, or the like, and a “wet, windy Wednesday night at Gillingham/Stoke” etc.
What’s strange, though, when looking at someone like Marouane Fellaini, is that he is the antithesis to every one of those stigmas. He has earned his stripes in England, strayed far away from anything that could be deemed flashy and basically bent all his technical gifts to serve the “higher purpose” that is good old fashioned, no nonsense, English football.
And yet, he is tarred with a similar, if separate, brush. With the news that his move to China has been agreed, a period of reflection is upon us.
And, it’s true, a lot of the conversation surrounding the maligned Belgian in recent times has actually been dominated by people defending him. “He gets a lot of stick, but he’s not that bad” etc etc. But that in itself is a slight on Fellaini.
Of course, the principle reason he has been viewed with such disparity is his place in the post Sir Alex Ferguson era. He was, after all, the first earnest signing of the David Moyes era, second only to the low-key capture of Guillermo Varela (now appearance-less at FC Copenhagen).
This is followed closely in importance by the way he was used under each of the three managers since SAF. In an era dominated by great overhaul and change, he was one of the only constants, as was his role – the last minute battering ram. The big head for the final seconds. The utility lump at that last corner who just might salvage a result for his boss.
One anecdote about Marouane Fellaini. After the interview I did with him in May 2013 he spontaneously offered to help the photographer with carrying the heavy cases and material to his car. That sums him up a bit. #mufc pic.twitter.com/J1hUZEB7is
— Kristof Terreur (@HLNinEngeland) January 31, 2019
Of course, the reason he was required to fill this role was largely down to the tactical inefficiencies of his coaches, and the inability of their style to translate to success during the 70-80 minutes prior to his throw-of-the-dice introduction.
This meant that the lasting images of so many of Manchester United’s worst performances during this time was a flailing Fellaini desperately trying to stick his forehead on the end of a low quality cross. A reversion to route one football, or in the parlance of United, a grave dancing routine over Ferguson’s hallowed turf.
While the Scotsman’s tenure could be summed up by that quintessential quote “I’ve never played for a draw in my life,” his successors frequently seemed to want nothing more in the world than a last gasp leveller, and the image of Fellaini came to symbolise this change.
And it was almost like all his managers knew this. Even though he had largely served them well when given an opportunity that wasn’t so frantic, they knew that one snatched chance, one rash moment, one slow motion shot of his fluffy head of hair would be enough to deflect just enough attention from themselves in the post-game breakdown.
Of course, eventually, this stopped working, and they were blamed for Fellaini-ball. But, it’s not like that did any favours to the 31-year-old’s image, is it?
Indeed, even when he was used effectively, and for more than just 10 minutes or so, and duly excelled, the resulting praise was laden with spite: “You won’t believe it, and it’s a massive indictment as to where the club is, but Marouane Fellaini (!!!!!!!!!!!!!) is their best player right now. WTF. LMAO.”
Or words to that effect.
I’ll miss Fellaini. Can’t wait to see him at Real Madrid when Mourinho goes there in the summer.
— John Brewin (@JohnBrewin_) January 31, 2019
But there were several periods, during the reigns of Louis van Gaal and Jose Mourinho especially, when the barrel chested Belgian was United’s most effective player. And it’s not his fault he wasn’t always conducive to the “United way”.
He was still a far more technically gifted player than many give him credit for. In England’s quasi group stage dead-rubber with Belgium at the World Cup, I was struck by this fact. Fellaini was by far the slickest player on the pitch, reminiscent of Mousa Dembele with the way he shielded the ball in control and distributed the ball.
And even in his most robust form, he was still a player to be reckoned with. It just feels like all the team’s deficiencies were placed on him. And, ultimately, that was his downfall.
Take someone like John Obi Mikel – who so nearly joined the Red Devils – at Chelsea. He was probably inferior in talent to the Belgian, but is still treated with far more respect, because he was a “necessary evil” in a team full of superstars that, crucially, won a lot of trophies.
But Fellaini was the opposite – the unnecessary evil in a team full of underachievers, bereft of success. United were never bad because of Fellaini. Fellaini was bad because United were bad themselves.
That’s why he gets no respect, and why he’s the GOAT scapegoat. May he now escape this livestock label and live out his remaining footballing years alongside the god Graziano Pelle at Shandong Luneng in peace.