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:
He’ll pass it too short and force a teammate to risk career-ending injury to retrieve possession.
He’ll pass it too long and make them sprint 50 yards to get it back.
He’ll hoof it out of play and sabotage any semblance of fluency or momentum his team might have been building.
He’ll cut out the middle-man and just give it straight to the opposition.
He’ll miscontrol it, get dispossessed and be too slow to win it back.
He’ll miscontrol it, get dispossessed and give away a free kick trying to win it back.
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.