Marouane Fellaini began Tuesday’s Champions League match against Basel on the bench for Manchester United. He finished it as man of the match, keying a 3-0 victory in a dominant individual performance.
Fellaini was handed the unenviable task of replacing Paul Pogba in midfield after he’d sustained a hamstring injury 19 minutes in. United had been firmly in control of the match in the early stages. The Frenchman had been central in that as the team’s engine and playmaker in midfield.
Replacing Pogba was no small feat, especially given his sparkling early season form. Fellaini could never hope to replicate Pogba’s technical flair or ability on the ball. However, the Belgian has his own unique qualities which helped keep United on top against Basel.
Fellaini provides a direct option in possession and a major goal threat in the box. This has frequently been a useful tactical option for United, especially in European competition.
He had a tremendous performance against Ajax in last year’s Europa League final. In the European Super Cup in August he gave Sergio Ramos and Raphael Varane nightmares in his substitute appearance.
This, once again, proved to be the case against Basel. In the 35th minute Fellaini’s aerial prowess broke the deadlock.
Fellaini begins this play outside the box, but when the ball is played to Ashley Young wide, he makes his move. Correctly anticipating the cross, he works his way to the back post and nods in from point blank range courtesy of a fantastic delivery from Young.
Fellaini is far more than just a static target man. In fact, what Mourinho appreciates about him most is his all around commitment and work rate. Fellaini puts in the hard yards and is willing to track back and act as a destroyer in midfield. For a man his size he moves around the pitch very well.
With United nursing a 2 goal lead late in the match, Nemanja Matic commits a sloppy turnover. This gives Kevin Bua an opportunity to run at United’s defenders with the ball. Fellaini is trailing 10 yards behind when the turnover occurs, but stays alert. He quickly makes up the ground and snuffs out any potential for danger with ease.
Fellaini’s creative side was also on show throughout the match. He created several scoring chances for his teammates with his work in possession.
On one occasion in the first half he received a lofted ball in behind Basel’s defense from Henrikh Mkhitaryan. Fellaini attempted to head it back into the path of Romelu Lukaku rather than go for goal himself. However, this was cut out by a Basel defender.
In another instance in the second half he used his strength to turn his man in the box. He then got to the byline and put in a cross across the 6 yard box. Anthony Martial got on the end of it, but was unable to turn the ball into net.
A cross by Fellaini from a similar position later on proved to be more profitable for United.
Fellaini makes a surging run forward into the box as Mkhitaryan plays a ball into Lukaku. Lukaku then guides a beautiful chipped ball into Fellaini’s path. He receives it and again gets to the byline to put in a cross. This time he connects with Marcus Rashford, who finishes and scores on his Champions League debut.
A Valuable Member of the Squad
The Belgian’s time at United has often been met with scorn and outright derision. Fellaini lacks the eye catching quality on the ball most feel is a necessity for a club of United’s ambition. He eschews highlight reel dribbles and passes for a more direct and, at times, more brutish approach.
Jose Mourinho, ever the pragmatist, has never placed the highest priority on aesthetic appeal. His main goal at every club he’s managed has always been to win in whatever fashion will get it done.
That ethos epitomises Fellaini as a player. He simply gets the job done, though not easy on the eye. This graft has made him an irreplaceable member of the squad for Mourinho.
Mourinho suggested his squad felt weaker without him. He stated that if not for Fellaini’s absence, United would have held on for a victory rather than settling for draw at Stoke last weekend. While that seemed hyperbolic at the time, Fellaini’s performance against Basel proved his worth and further demonstrated why Mourinho has an implicit trust in him.