For a footballer who suffers a near-constant dose of over-the-top criticism, look no further than Marouane Fellaini. For a man who handles this with dignity and a disarming sense of self-deprecation, again take note of the Belgium midfielder.
Yet he is also, despite the naysayers, a very effective player. When José Mourinho wanted to wrest control of the Uefa Super Cup final away from Real Madrid at Skopje’s Philip II Stadium on Tuesday night, it was to Fellaini whom the manager turned.
A sizeable constituency of Manchester United fans find the notion of Fellaini as Mourinho’s game-breaker unpalatable. They point to a perceived clumsiness that affects his touch, pass and general football sense. They add – perhaps understandably – that his is a rudimentary talent not akin to the United way.
The prime focus of England’s most successful club is the accumulation of trophies, though. And in Fellaini, Mourinho sees an asset who can break an opposition’s rhythm, ask awkward questions, and so materially help get the job of winning done.
It may be easy to deride Fellaini’s skills as agricultural but arch-pragmatist Mourinho could not care less. When he entered for Ander Herrera on 56 minutes in the Macedonian capital, Real were winning 2-0. Isco had just scored the second for Zinedine Zidane’s side and Paul Pogba and Romelu Lukaku followed this by missing the chance to pull one back with a close-range header and shot, respectively, that either should have converted. The sense was Zidane’s outfit could be on the verge of steamrollering Mourinho’s men.
What happened next saw the contest swing back towards United. It may not be fashionable among some supporters to admit but Mourinho got exactly what he hoped for with Fellaini’s introduction. Six minutes after entering and operating as an auxiliary forward, Fellaini had upset Real enough for Lukaku to pull a goal back and United were in contention again.
Until then the contest had largely been a Real exhibition as Luka Modric, Casemiro – the scorer of their first goal – and Toni Kroos pulled United around the park with a midfield master-class. Suddenly, with Fellaini’s height and willingness to bully and sheer presence, Real’s fluidity was disrupted.
As Mourinho later said: “He was fantastic and is just an example of spirit we have. We were losing 2-0 and after 2-0 the next ball is a double chance [Pogba and Lukaku’s] and then we go to 2-1 and he keeps going then we miss the [Marcus] Rashford chance.”
That opportunity came in the closing minutes. By then Fellaini’s determination to draw Real into the kind of dogfight they rarely experience in La Liga or the Champions League was illustrated by a clash of heads with Sergio Ramos.
It came as Fellaini jumped for the ball with Real’s captain near Keylor Navas’s goal. On landing the former Everton man required several minutes of treatment. When a member of United’s medical staff left the stricken Fellaini and headed back to the bench it seemed this might be for a stretcher and an early end to Fellaini’s brief night. Instead the medic returned with a padded head-guard, Fellaini gamely put this on, then eagerly returned to the fray.
Ultimately United were unable to avert defeat and failed in the bid to claim a second Super Cup. Yet later, after Mourinho pointed to Fellaini’s spirit in the post-match press conference, a telling illustration of his ability to laugh at himself came via Twitter. A photograph of Fellaini began circulating that showed his features crumpled and twisted out of shape in the manner of an image from Picasso’s Cubism period. “Thanks to everyone who posted & sent me this,” he wrote in response, adding six laughing emojis for good measure.
Fellaini’s United career has endured being booed by his own fans and the (unfair) stigma of being associated with David Moyes’s doomed tenure after he was the Scot’s sole acquisition of the 2013 summer window. Yet Fellaini has now won the FA Cup, EFL Cup and Europa League with the club and particularly impressed in May’s 2-0 victory over Ajax in the latter final.
That evening in Stockholm Uefa voted Herrera the man of the match, but it is understood the technical committee came close to awarding the accolade to Fellaini.
Following Tuesday’s defeat to Real, Mourinho said: “The midfield players of Real Madrid are only one, there are no replicas. No replicas of Modric, Toni Kroos, Isco, no replicas of Casemiro, so they are really solid and the way they move the ball makes it difficult for the opponents. In the second half we found a way to create difficulties and to give them the kind of football they don’t like and don’t dominate.”
This was primarily through Fellaini – with fellow substitute Rashford also a factor. When Mourinho speaks of the uniqueness of Modric, Kroos, Isco and Casemiro he is correct.
But, in his own differing way, Fellaini is also a one-off: a footballer that any manager whose constant pursuit is winning would surely like in his squad as an option and a potentially decisive weapon.