Marouane Fellaini, not for the first time, was Manchester United‘s hero on Tuesday night. But it didn’t really feel like it. When he swivelled and found the bottom corner of the Young Boys net with just minutes remaining, the overriding feeling around Old Trafford was one of relief, not joy.
Some fans had already left, but those who stayed saw Fellaini score the winner. The most surprising part was that the Belgian did not score with his head, instead caressing the ball deftly into the corner, with only a hint of his usual awkwardness.
Perhaps it was the absence of the afro.
Fellaini is unquestionably useful. He has a knack for appearing late on in important games, when his team have run of ideas and see his giant frame as the only solution. Since he joined United in 2013, he has scored an impressive nine match-winning goals.
The issue, for the club’s fans, is that he has been asked to function as a makeshift forward far too often. Fellaini is gangly, tall and powerful, and therefore difficult to defend against. But utilising him as a target man and abandoning all attempts to play with the ball on the ground should be a last resort. It has seemed, in recent weeks, that Mourinho has regularly been at the point of last resort.
United have a team full of talented players. Yet their struggles in front of goal have persisted. Fellaini’s goal against Young Boys was their first from open play in 360 minutes in all competitions. It came from a route one ball and a flick on.
There should not be a need to rely on such direct, functional football but there is clearly a reluctance, or an inability, to play with any creativity or inventiveness in the final third. As long as Fellaini is the focal point in attack, that will continue.
The Belgian is, of course, effective up to a point. He wins, on average, 5.94 aerial duels per 90 minutes, by far the most of any player in Manchester United’s squad. In the Champions League, he touches the ball in the box an average of 5.09 times per 90 and has 1.69 scoring attempts per game. And when he plays deeper in midfield he does what is required with minimal fuss, laying the ball off to teammates and breaking up opposition attacks.
But there are connotations to a late Fellaini goal. It does not scream of a game of free-flowing, fluid attacking football. And, against Young Boys, it wasn’t. From the home side’s perspective, it was turgid and uninspired, as it has been so often at Old Trafford this season.
If Fellaini has been made an unfair scapegoat it is because of Mourinho’s insistence on making him such a prominent feature in United’s attacking play. It is evidence of a lack of ideas, and of an alarming lack of creativity. Fellaini’s ability to disrupt a defence and win headers should not be a necessity. It should be a backup plan.
Fellaini is a quick fix, an easy solution, one that requires no real intricacy or planning. He is good at what he does, yes, but launching the ball into the air in the general direction of his head, hoping that he will bully defenders out of his path and head the ball into the net, is not a feasible long-term plan. When he does score, as on Tuesday night, it usually just papers over the glaring cracks.
It does not help that Fellaini has always been viewed as something of a battering ram, all elbows and no skill. He is not always as cumbersome as he is made out to be, as he showed with his goal against Young Boys. But United are now associated with the kind of football Fellaini thrives on: direct, unattractive, at times chaotic.
He has a place in this team, certainly. He is versatile, capable of functioning in a number of roles. But if Mourinho continues to turn to him in desperation, if United continue to resort to the kind of route one football that feels almost inevitable when he is on the pitch, they should not be surprised if enthusiasm at Old Trafford wanes further.