Despite reports linking him with a move away from Manchester United, Marouane Fellaini is staying put this summer. Why? Because Jose Mourinho still considers him a vital member of his squad. “It is easier for Galatasaray to get me than to get Marouane,” he said of the Turkish club’s reported interest in the Belgian. “He is too important to me.” But what exactly does Mourinho see in Fellaini to consider him such a vital part of his plans, especially with the more reliable Nemanja Matic having arrived from Chelsea?
Well, despite the Serbian’s move north, United’s cupboard of central midfielders remains little more stocked than Old Mother Hubbard’s. While Matic, Paul Pogba and Ander Herrera are the likely starters in the middle of the park, the only other natural backups are Michael Carrick and Timothy Fosu-Mensah, who can both expect their playing time to be limited by their years of birth, with the former now too old to play every match and the latter still inexperienced at his raw age of 19. Throw an injury and suspension or two into the mix, or the need to rotate ahead of Champions League nights, and Mourinho’s options would all of a sudden be very limited. While it’s true that he has defenders he could shift forward or attacking midfielders he could ask to drop deeper, there is a clear benefit to keeping Fellaini as one further central option.
Then there is the fact that Fellaini is one of the most versatile players in the Europa League champions’ squad. While he has been played as a central or defensive midfielder over 100 times in his four-year United career, the floppy-haired Belgian has also played in the attacking midfield role he used to thrive in for Everton and even once started as a centre-forward, in a 3-1 win over Liverpool. Having a squad player who can put in a shift in multiple positions is no bad thing and the benefits of this certainly make it worth keeping him around – especially considering how insignificant a fee United could expect to receive from selling him.
For Mourinho, the fact that Fellaini offers him an extra physical and aerial threat is yet further reason to tell Galatasaray to back off. In the Europa League final in Stockholm, the Belgian rattled Ajax’s technical but slender youngsters with several tough challenges in the opening minutes. It wasn’t quite the old-school-let-him-know-you’re-there two-footer straight from kick-off, but Fellaini still made sure the Dutch side knew who was in charge. Of course, his six-foot-four frame also makes the team even more dangerous from set pieces and from crosses into the box, as evidenced by the fact that half of his 16 goals in a United shirt have been headers, including all four of his net-ripplers from the 2016/17 campaign.
Fellaini may not be the favourite player of many, if any, Manchester United supporters and there won’t be many No.27 shirts being sold in the club shop, but his coach still loves him and that’s what matters most. Given the elite passing maestros to have passed through the Old Trafford midfield over the years, it is understandable that the unorthodox and often clumsy Fellaini is a difficult player for fans to embrace. But it is his unique skillset that makes him so valuable and that gives Mourinho an option that few other managers have on their bench. If United do finish the 2017/18 season with a trophy or two being held in the air, Fellaini will have played a small but significant role in making that happen.