Marouane Fellaini, Manchester United & unappreciated consequences

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Manchester United will play in Brugges tonight, hoping to stamp their passport into the Champions League Group Stage. United hold an three-one advantage from the first-leg so, barring something catastrophic, all should be well.

A sub-plot this evening will be the deployment of Marouane Fellaini who, as Louis Van Gaal has confirmed, will be used to cover the forward positions at Old Trafford this season.

That’s a bit tough on the Belgian because, initially at least, that announcement will be accompanied by the eventual realisation that there is no Edinson Cavani, Karim Benzema or Gonzalo Higuain in the club’s immediate future.  With Wayne Rooney obviously flagging and van Gaal’s side looking ineffective at the top of the pitch, that will be a concern and the promise of Fellaini’s functional, robust style of play will do little to quell that frustration.

Fair enough; he’s a utility forward and Manchester United are not the sort of club which should have to repurpose a player for the sake of filling out their squad-depth.

Still, Fellaini’s contribution at the top of the pitch is not to be underestimated and van Gaal has already shown during these past fourteen months that he can be quite innovative with the big midfielder and extract more from him than just the typical targetman functions.

Yes, Fellaini is strong in the air and, as and when he plays up front, he diversifies a team’s approach in the final third.  But he’s more than that, he’s not just a focal point.

Towards the end of last season, van Gaal got a lot of mileage out of Fellaini by moving him around and positioning him in places where he had a natural physical advantage.  The Manchester City game at Old Trafford was a very good example of that and United’s ability to isolate Fellaini on one of the full-backs was an integral part of one of their best performances of the season.  True, he didn’t play as a forward that day, but it was still a hint of what he’s capable of in those areas.

The above, from FourFourTwo’s StatZone, shows his contribution from that game.  While Fellaini’s influence was localised within that advanced left area, it’s notable just how good he was at recycling the ball and how, far from being a knock-down merchant, he was actually a fully-functioning part of United’s ground game.

What the graphic doesn’t show, obviously, is the secondary impact of his play.

Fellaini creates space in advanced positions, because very few defenders are able to cope with him one-on-one.  As a consequence, he typically creates opportunities for his teammates and his presence in and around a penalty-box inevitably opens a wider variety of passing channels - and that’s not really reliant on anything he does or how well he performs in possession, it’s a symptom of the theoretical threat he poses.

No, none of this is that exciting and in a world in which Ed Woodward was a competent negotiator it would be redundant, but don’t think that using Maroune Fellaini as a forward is necessarily a bad thing or that it will lead to an overly direct style of play.

It won’t.  Assess this in terms of what it will allow other players to do rather than what he himself is capable of.

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