Flail to the chief: an ode to Marouane Fellaini

large old paper or parchment background texture
Vitruvian Marouane

Certain players are possessed of a unique physicality. A signature style of motion which is entirely their own. Thierry Henry, for instance, used to glide across the grass with a whisper-light elegance that was almost balletic. Roy Keane would charge, driving his bootheels into the turf as though stomping the guts of his enemies on some ancient battlefield. Wayne Rooney – in his heavy-footed, ham-faced dotage – may fairly be said to chunter.

Marouane Fellaini flails. He’s a flailer. Chief among his many, many failings is his flailing.

Watching Fellaini ‘run’ is like watching an Ent go to war. Seeing him make a tackle is like witnessing a ‘whacky, waving inflatable arm-flailing tube man’ committing sexual assault. He engulfs opposition players like an avalanche of hockey sticks erupting from some inopportunely opened sports equipment cupboard. His touch is heavier than hopelessness. His turning circle is fractionally tighter than the Titanic. And he’s really, really bad at football.

When someone passes Marouane Fellaini a football, one of the following seven things will invariably happen:

  1. He’ll pass it too short and force a teammate to risk career-ending injury to retrieve possession.

  2. He’ll pass it too long and make them sprint 50 yards to get it back.

  3. He’ll hoof it out of play and sabotage any semblance of fluency or momentum his team might have been building.

  4. He’ll cut out the middle-man and just give it straight to the opposition.

  5. He’ll miscontrol it, get dispossessed and be too slow to win it back.

  6. He’ll miscontrol it, get dispossessed and give away a free kick trying to win it back.

  7. He’ll control it perfectly and be so surprised that he gets dispossessed…you get the idea.

And if he has to turn with the ball, you may as well go put the kettle on. Because United’s strikers aren’t going to see it until the opposition defenders have all sauntered back into place, taken on some energy drink and had a little huddle to discuss why Groot traded guarding the galaxy for stinking up the Theatre of Dreams.

At his best (when he has the good grace to touch the ball as little as possible), picking Fellaini is like playing with 10 men. At his worst, it’s like playing against 12.

Yet it’s become almost unfashionable to criticise Marouane Fellaini. And not because he’s getting any better. But because his shitness is so eye-gougingly obvious (to everyone, it would seem, except three consecutive United managers) that it barely even merits pointing out. It’s now apparently considered unsporting* – crass, even – to criticise a man of such demonstrably limited abilities who’s just doing his best for goodness sake and dammit all.

In fact, so well-cast is Fellaini as a walking, talking metaphor for the meagre-minded mid-table mediocrity of Moyes’s reign and the soporific ponderousness of Van Gaal’s that some have decried what they see as his unfair scapegoating** for all United’s shortcomings since the departure of Sir Alex (blessed be he).

Fans and journalists alike are now coming out with self-justifying post-match paeans like:

Oh, I think he did ok, actually.”

Actually, he put a real shift in.”

You know, he actually wasn’t that bad.”

As if criticising him has now become such an instinctive thing to do that the criticism itself can remain unspoken – an implied, preemptive denunciation which commentators then feel the need to counterbalance: “For an iredeemably shit player,” they mentally intone, “he did ok. ACTUALLY.

The upshot is that, far from being scapegoated, Fellaini is actually judged by a far more charitable standard than every other player on the pitch, let alone in a Manchester United shirt. The bar of expectation for Marouane Fellaini is so low that literally all he has to do is not score an own goal, concede a penalty or get sent off and he’ll have “done ok, actually.

Never mind that he conceded possession every time he got the ball, gave three different players concussion (two of them, his own teammates) and generally slowed the game down so much that anyone watching online would be forgiven for thinking their stream had crashed. Nope, all in a day’s work for plucky Marouane, battling valiantly to master the dimensions of his inexplicable body. We’ll save our righteous abuse for Paul Pogba, who only managed to beat 16 players, hit the bar five times and achieve a parlous 85% accuracy rate with his raking 60-yard through balls.

Don’t get me wrong, criticising Pogba is entirely justified because he can clearly achieve so much more. But is criticising Fellaini unjustified just because he can’t? Is it wrong to criticise Donald Trump’s foreign policy because, for a racist mandrill with Cheez Whiz on his head, it’s actually pretty progressive? Exactly.

And, in any case, it’s not really Fellaini I’m criticising here, it’s his continued selection. Because I’ve got nothing against the guy personally – it’s not his fault that he is calamity made corporeal. Havoc in human form. Armageddon with an afro. It’s not his fault that he’s basically an autonomous tumbleweed of thrashing limbs, each seemingly possessed of more knees and elbows than an all-Peter Crouch can-can line. It’s not his fault that he flails. It’s just…why in god’s name does he keep getting picked?

I mean I know why he keeps getting picked.

He keeps getting picked because he’s a monument to managerial hubris. First a function of Van Gaal’s (literally) pig-headed inability to look facts in the face and then of Mourinho’s self-image as the type of man manager who, by sheer strength of will and charisma, can transform a no-hoper into a world-beater.

And yes, very occasionally, during the sort of grinding, agricultural slog you’re almost guaranteed by picking Fellaini, he will make the only ‘positive’ contribution he’s capable of – lolloping into the box like some sort of stampeding swing set, draping himself over the nearest ill-starred fullback, letting a speculatively-lofted 40-yard cross bounce off him into the six yard box and hoping that, in the ensuing chaos, someone in a red shirt can lash the ball into the net.

Cue shudders of orgiastic self-satisfaction from the ‘actually’ brigade, who climax to their own clever contrarianism instead of wondering whether the two or three occasions a season on which darling Marouane’s graceless pratfalling leads to a bargain-basement, blooper-reel goal are really a fair return for the odyssey of squandered opportunities, the sclerotic attacking play, the stylistic vapidity and the terminal ebbing of belief other players must experience having to play tethered to this towering totem of talentlessness.

Look, there’s really no need to feel sorry for the guy. As a fig leaf covering one manager’s tactical ineptitude and coasting on the wind of another’s blustering ego, he’s doing pretty well for himself. He’s playing for a far more prestigious club in a far better side among far more gifted players and for far higher wages than his scant, circus sideshow skills deserve. Who else has ever been awarded the captaincy of Manchester United FC for being quite good at chesting a football***?

No, Marouane Fellaini has no need of our sympathy.

So, while criticising him may be clichéd, while it might often be lazy, and why it can sometimes even be cruel, it’s also right and fair and necessary.

He’s just not very good at football. Actually.

*An adjective which could be reasonably applied to Fellaini’s prowess.

** And again, he does look like a goat trying to escape…something.

***Oh, and while we’re on the subject, chest control is the easiest and most pointless skill in the game. The chest – a flat, broad tract of torso – is almost preternaturally designed to cushion the descent of a football. The only reason players so rarely use it to do so is because, at that height and at the top level, a marauding defender is far more likely to get his head in the way first. The only reason Fellaini does it so often is because his chest is about six feet above the heads of most marauding defenders. Bra-fucking-vo.


Labour, under a misapprehension


Does anyone remember that old Panorama episode about Scientology?

I’m thinking particularly of the clip in which, having spent the past few months following these guys around, BBC hack John Sweeney finally loses his shit and starts screaming in the face of Scientology spokesdrone Tommy Davis.

Sweeney later remarked that it was the eerie composure of the man – the way he’d calmly reel off bare-faced, demonstrable falsehoods as though they were gospel – that finally made him snap.

Most deranged cult apparatchiks, it seems, have the good grace to run around, wild-eyed and tangle-haired, machine-gunning spittle and raving about lizard people or how much god hates fags (lots). In short, to look deranged.

But this one, rather unsportingly, concealed his crazy beneath a veneer of halcyon serenity. An unwavering, lobotomised smile and an oiled, modulated voice. The metronomic nodding of a head tilted in ersatz empathy as if to say: ‘Gosh, you are getting into a frightful state about all this aren’t you? That’s ok though, I forgive you. God forgives you.’

Confronted with the unruffled and unassailable certainty of the man, invulnerable to reason and deaf to all the entreaties of logic, Sweeney started to wonder if he was the unhinged one. If he was the lunatic.

Then, suddenly, he was.

Whenever I see Jeremy Corbyn give an interview, I’m reminded of that encounter – that calm, measured delivery of delusion. The reasonableness of unreason. And I wonder how close to Sweeney-grade apoplexy any watching Labour MPs must be getting.

You’ve only got to look at Ed Balls who, as the Jurassic dents in the Strictly dance floor and the oversized, sweat-sodden garments in wardrobe will doubtless attest, has clearly been prised apart from what questionable sanity he once had.

And it’s the calm of Corbyn wot done it. As political biographer John Campbell wrote of Hugh Gaitskell: ‘by his very reasonableness [he] had a knack for rubbing people up the wrong way.’

I mean leaving aside the policy vacuums and terminal party disunity, the worrying and recurrent anti-Semitism, and the barely perfunctory referendum remain ‘campaign’. Leaving aside only the third mid-term local election since 1974 in which the opposition has failed to gain seats from the government* and the hard left, social media trolling personality cult, Momentum, whose idea of ‘reaching out’ is writing ‘unity’ on a bit of paper, wrapping it around a brick and lobbing it through Angela Eagles’ constituency office window.

Leaving aside poll ratings that make Ed Miliband look like a bona fide bacon sandwich-eating, “touch enough”-pronouncing, election-winning machine, and leaving aside, finally, the fact that all this is being played out in opposition to what is arguably one of the weakest governments in recent memory. One which – to its own surprise as much as anyone’s – staggered into office in 2015 with a majority smaller than the number of ministers Theresa May has now sacked from the front bench. One whose leading lights have, in the time since, divided their efforts fairly evenly between missing economic targets and dredging the party’s septic tank of four decades’ worth of festering Eurosceptical ordure. An exercise which resulted in the mid-term resignation of their prime minister and precipitated a leadership election where not a single member cast a single vote, but characterised by the largest number of back-stabbings since Edward Scissorhands slashed his way to victory at the All-American Conga Championships in the early 90s.

Yes, for heaven’s sake, leaving aside all that, reckon what must really razz off the Parliamentary Labour Party is Jeremy’s confounded reasonableness.

The way that, while the party teeters on the verge of an existential abyss, its leader shuffles beatifically from bake sale to Bolshevik knitwear symposium looking like an exceptionally zen rescue dog and intoning pointless, pacific platitudes about ‘reaching out’, ‘coming together’ and ‘a new style of politics.’

“But, but… that means even less than the gibberish arse-whiffle I used to come out with!” one can almost hear Ed Balls bawl.

And he’s right. It means absolutely nothing. But to the only voters Jezza seems keen to court (namely the ones who already agree with him), that doesn’t matter. They see his potting shed chic and soggy owl grooming and think such a deliberate lack of style must bespeak some sort of substance.

It’s an understandable (if idiotic) conflation. And it’s accompanied by another, more important one. One which I believe goes some way towards explaining why Corbyn is so calm and why the Labour Party is so fucked.

Corbynistas, you understand, don’t look at powerlessness and see inadequacy or incompetence. They see integrity.

It’s not just that they don’t care about winning elections; they don’t want to. To them, ‘power’ – like ‘Zionism’, ‘Blairite’ or ‘compromise’ – is a dirty word. Their movement – their very identity – is predicated on protest, vivified by victimhood and built on a moral high ground whose residents have never been burdened by even the slimmest prospect of influence or responsibility. To them, power doesn’t just corrupt; it is corruption. And trying to gain it entails an abandonment of principle; the unthinkable dilution of ideological purity.

Moreover, these are people to whom merely being relevant – just having their tweedy arses in the driving seat of the clown car – is a giddying novelty. So even if they have to drive that car off an electoral cliff to retain the wheel (by which I mean that Labour is slashed back to fewer than, say, 100 seats at the next election), that’ll still be a vast improvement on what they’re used to. Namely, being gagged and bound in the boot.

I mean it’ll effectively disenfranchise millions of people who, for generations, have depended on Labour to stop the Tories extending slavery to anyone without a knighthood, but give a shit, right? They don’t live in Islington and wouldn’t know ethically-sourced quinoa if they were choking on it.

But until then, St Jeremy – the movement and the man, the movement in the man, more feminist than any mere woman, more sensitive to anti-Semitism than any mere Jew – can continue to waft about the place intoxicated by his own self-possession, muttering about miners and marmalade to ineffably jolly but utterly humourless rallies of his own personality cult.

Another epithet of Gaitskell – this time by Roy Jenkins – described him as a man on a mission ‘to lead his party towards rational, responsible and philosophically coherent socialism.’ It seems Jez has decided to lead his party towards rational, responsible and philosophically coherent extinction.

I just hope Ed Balls can get the care he so desperately needs.

*The first two were presided over by Michael Foot and Neil Kinnock respectively, neither of whom has ever been seen anywhere near Downing Street without a tour guide.

Also posted on the Huffington Post.

George Osborne again (or A eulogy for John McDonnell)

Osborne 2

I suppose I should’ve drawn Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell after his toe-curling response to Big George’s spending review last week. But, given that it’s likely to hasten his already fairly imminent departure from frontline politics, I’m not sure it’s worth bothering to learn what his face looks like.

For those who didn’t catch it, McDonnell crowned a toweringly incoherent riposte by quoting from venerable despot and genocidal tunic-enthusiast Chairman Mao Tse Tung’s Little Red Book – an item so incongruous in the House of Commons he could’ve whipped out a massive red dildo and raised fewer eyebrows.

I mean seriously, talk about confirming unhelpful stereotypes. Imagine John Major ironing his Y-fronts on the despatch box or David Cameron going full Bullingdon and announcing, between lusty swigs of Bollinger, the privatisation of the NHS to fund a vast annual subsidy for the British pig farming industry. Perhaps Boris riffling through his Little Black Book and fondly recounting conquests past (or possibly present). That’s the level.

And the thing is it could – if handled with a soupcon more acuity – have been a moment of cautious triumph for McDonnell.

Osborne had just announced two whopping great U-turns on tax credits and police funding. U-turns for which J McD should’ve bounced straight up to claim the credit by having made the anti-austerity case with such formidable verve and eloquence (ha) while at the same time amplifying the vox populi in the palaces of the mighty, doing a passable impression of a united, coherent opposition party and even nursing a few green shoots of economic credibility into the bargain. Utter bollocks of course but who cares? ‘Engine of the North,’ anyone? Yeah, exactly.

Instead, what Johnny McDonny did was to stagger up to the mic like someone’s pissed grandad crashing the after-dinner speeches at a wedding and begin rummaging through the dusty, clutter-strewn attic of his mind. Minute by minute, one by one, Labour faces froze into veneers of clenched, expressionless fury. And, as he brandished his Little Red Career Coffin, political sketchwriters all over Wapping slid their 2012 ‘Omnishamble budget’ write-ups back onto the shelf and, en masse, settled down to craft Mao puns (‘Mao money, Mao problems’ is one I was disappointed not to see).

By the time he concluded with a limp attack on Boris Johnson (who had buggered off about half an hour earlier), McDonnell had succeeded – masterfully and totally – in wiping the Chancellor’s fiscal flip-flopping from a nation’s collective memory.

“I got the point across though didn’t I?” bleated the old goat on the Channel 4 News that evening.

“What point would that be then?” more or less replied a broadly grinning and almost recumbent Krishnan Guru-Murthy.

“The one about selling off our national assets.”

*Baffled ‘what fucking planet are you from?’ silence*

“We wouldn’t be having this conversation now if I hadn’t raised the issue in what was perhaps a slightly jocular manner” he insisted with chuckling derangement.

No, course not. You’re only the Shadow Chancellor of the bleedin’ Exchequer in the wake of the most important economic statement of this parliament. How could you possibly have wrangled yourself a millisecond of air time without transporting us to the People’s Republic of Top Bantz?

I know ol’ Ronald McDonnell had previously promised not to make political capital out of any climb down the government might perform on tax credits. But he could’ve at least let the rancid stench of surrender hang in the air for a few seconds and people’s eyes water a little before obligingly charging in to stink up the place himself.

I mean it’s one thing staying dutifully po-faced when a rival cuts a violent fart in unreceptive circumstances but quite another to take the bullet yourself by immediately wrenching down your own pantaloons and curling off a vast, varnish-melting deuce on the coffee table of the commentariat.

Anyway whatevs. Here’s Gorgeous George who, courtesy of a commendable effort to lead a national tightening of belts literally and by example, now looks like he’s inhabiting someone else’s skin.

Diego Costa

Diego Costa colour

Why do referees have such a beef with sweet, sensitive Diego Costa?

Is it cos he’s a filthy, cheating bastard? Probably. But on a purely instinctive, subliminal level (indeed if Simon Schama’s new documentary, The Face of Britain, has taught us anything), they’re also just reacting to his face. Specifically the fact he appears to have purloined it from a Robert Rodriguez villain.

Though only 26, Costa already resembles the 55 year old love child of Luis Guzmán (Cinematic Puerto Rican warthog lookalike who’s made a living far handsomer than he is by playing chubby 70s Latino gangsters) and Danny Trejo (tattooed, stab-happy Mexican gangster who hones his thespian craft portraying tattooed, stab-happy Mexican gangsters).

His hair looks like something which washed up in the aftermath of the BP Deepwater disaster. His eyebrows resemble censor bars, possibly mandated by Ofcom to draw a veil of decency over the scar-strewn site of myriad headbutt-related atrocities. His complexion recalls the arse-churned soil of a long-jump pit and his stygian stubble looks like it could sand Gabriel Paulista’s teeth down to a size which might actually enable them to fit into his mouth.

When refs they see him smile that blameless, driven-snow smile of his they probably think, having somehow wandered onto the set of Once Upon a Time in Mexico, that they’re about to take delivery of a toothpick in the eye and a pool cue up the arse.

I mean obviously the fact they’ve just watched him stamp on someone’s throat probably also informs their reaction to some extent. All I’m saying is if he looked like Santi Cazorla, he’d probably get away with it a bit more.

Donald Trump

Trump background final

Surely Donald Trump is the pinkest man alive.

Because, in trying to think of equals, I could only come up with Miss Piggy and Krang from the Teenage Mutant Hero Turtles. And they’re both fictional. Whereas of course Trump – the billionaire property mogul, son of a millionaire property mogul – lives a life firmly grounded in reality.

So salmon-hued is this man’s skin, he looks like he spends the entirety of his down time – when not joyriding choppers across Manhattan’s skyline and mentally ‘firing’ its citizens – in a massive gilded sauna. Then, when he’s called upon to rouse a rabble (shout tabloid headlines), I imagine him being mechanically whisked through some sort of car wash-style set-up where he’s exfoliated, drip-dried, moisturised, glazed and liberally dusted with talcum powder to take the retina-searing edge off that gelatinous shine. He’s then left on a vast baking tray for a while to ‘set’, and finally stuffed into a suit and deposited in front of a microphone to shout things about Rosie O’Donnell. The American dream.

The result is that he basically looks like a powder puff with hair. Well, I say hair, it’s more like peroxide smoke. I mean his hair actually looks like a gas. Which, I suppose, would make him closer in appearance to a flambéd marshmallow.

Or in this case, a fuschia-faced fascist with a massive heap of steaming shit on his head.

Cos you know. Satire.