With a perfectly timed leap and a flick of his head, Marouane Fellaini finally ended his 10-month goal drought to get Belgium back on level terms with Algeria and set them on their way to a 2-1 win in their opening World Cup match.
Fellaini’s goal in Belgium’s World Cup win not only turned the match in his country’s favour, it was a glimpse of the player we saw so often at Everton. Not the one who struggled so badly after his £27.5million to Manchester United last summer.
He failed to find the back of the net during his first season at Old Trafford, but this goal exhibited some of his best qualities. His jump to meet Kevin de Bruyne’s cross was typically impressive, while the header itself showed the sort of technique he sorely missed in the red of United.
Fellaini was introduced as a second half substitute by manager Marc Wilmots after his poor form at club level cost him a place in the starting XI. Deployed in an advanced role, the big Belgian was instrumental to his side’s come-from-behind win and even came close to scoring a second with another powerful header.
His position against Algeria was reminiscent of where David Moyes often chose to use him at Everton, behind a lone striker but far enough forward to occupy opposition central defenders with his huge frame and boney elbows. It worked a treat for Wilmots and it would be no surprise to see Fellaini start in a similar role against Russia on Sunday.
When Moyes bought Fellaini from Standard Liege in 2008, he believed he was buying a powerful defensive midfielder with the ability to break up attacks and get from box-to-box. And while the 26-year-old enjoyed some success in a traditional midfield role for the Toffees, his most eye-catching displays always came when he played further forward.
In his final season on Merseyside, Fellaini scored more Premier League goals than any other player (11), created 40 chances and registered five assists in 31 appearances. He also won 60% of his headed duels and hit the target with 54% of his efforts at goal. He did all of that often playing behind Nikica Jelavic or Victor Anichebe, with less defensive responsibility placed on his sizeable shoulders.
Despite his success further up the field, Moyes decided against playing Fellaini anywhere other than central midfield. Whether that was because of the riches at his disposal – Robin van Persie, Wayne Rooney and Shinji Kagawa to name just three – or because a more direct style of play wouldn’t be tolerated by United’s fans, we’ll never know.
Whatever the reason, Fellaini failed to find his feet as part of the Red Devils’ central midfield pair. He made just 16 top-flight appearances – partly because of injury and partly because of his lacklustre form – and failed to hit the back of the net.
He created only five chances, managed just one assist and won a lower percentage of tackles (46%) and headers (52%) than in last season in the blue of Everton. His shot accuracy dropped by 10% and his pass completion rate (88% compared to 79%) was the only noticeable improvement in his game.
The statistics prove that Fellaini is much more effective in his own unique version of the No 10 role than as orthodox central midfielder, something alluded to by his Belgium team-mate Jan Vertonghen after the victory over Algeria.
The Tottenham defender told the Daily Mail: “We know how to use him and I don’t know whether they do in his other team.
“Marouane is always very important for the Belgian team. I know there has been a lot of pressure on him from the fans in England but in Belgium he always does well and scores goals.”
Louis van Gaal will take charge at United after Netherlands’ World Cup campaign comes to an end and he is reportedly keen on strengthening his squad with a number of new faces before the transfer window closes.
The Dutchman has his country playing fast, flowing football in Brazil, but Fellaini’s goal and performance against Algeria is a timely reminder of his talents when played in an advanced role, even if it’s not quite as pretty as Arjen Robben running rings around opposition defenders.
Like Moyes, Van Gaal is unlikely to instruct his United defence to pump long balls forward to the head and chest of Fellaini from the first whistle. But the former Barcelona boss would be wise to focus on the Belgian’s best attributes and use them at the right moments – chasing a goal late in a game or when faced with a team content to ‘park the bus’.
Keep him away from central midfield and Fellaini could become United and Van Gaal’s perfect Plan B.
Topics: Marouane Fellaini