The sight of Paul Pogba limping away from Manchester United’s return to Champions League action against Basel in early September had many a Reds supporter worried, particularly when it was Marouane Fellaini called upon to take the Frenchman’s place.
Such is the Belgian’s reputation among some factions of United’s fan base, he has become something of a figure of fun during his time at Old Trafford. His sometimes-clumsy style of play has been a slow burner with supporters of a club who have done their best to pride themselves on slick football over a period of many decades.
But since Pogba’s absence, Fellaini has turned in a run of form which has had Jose Mourinho delivering countless superlatives, and on Saturday he netted twice as United brushed aside Premier League bottom-dwellers Crystal Palace 4-0 at Old Trafford.
Fellaini’s value to United has been greatly understated since being David Moyes’ figurehead signing in the summer of 2013, but there can be few doubting his current run of form. While Mourinho confirmed on Friday that Pogba’s injury is a long-term problem, his side have certainly not missed their £89.5 million midfielder thanks to Fellaini’s impact to the side and the revelation that has been Nemanja Matic.
Having scored the opener after relieving Pogba against Basel, Fellaini played a key role in the 4-0 win against former club Everton which followed and was then one of their stand-out players once more as they saw off a spirited Southampton at St Mary’s last time out.
“He’s a very important player for me, much more important than what you can imagine,” said Mourinho recently.
“Ander Herrera was Player of the Season and he’s not starting matches. That’s life in big clubs. We gave Michael Carrick a contract because we think he is a good player. We think he is an important player.
"He is just in a team where at this moment Matic and Fellaini are in the best form that I have ever seen them in.”
On Saturday, there was a feeling of inevitability about a United win before the game had even started and it only grew within three minutes when Juan Mata slotted home after great work down the left by Marcus Rashford.
Ashley Young then teed up Fellaini’s first towards the end of the opening period with a delightful cross, and the Belgian turned in Rashford’s left-wing free-kick for another shortly after the break. Romelu Lukaku tapped home his customary goal - an 11th in 10 for United - with four minutes left.
As social media was immediately taken over with memes likening Fellaini to Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo, it was clear that the 29-year-old’s transformation from joke figure to part of the furniture has been more than completed. While Fellaini’s rather rudimentary footballing style and awkward-looking gait remain, his importance to this side only grows.
As United continue to deliver a more dynamic attack and a higher pressing game when without the ball, Fellaini is able to affect games far higher up the field than has largely been true in the past.
Rarely now is he being asked probing questions in his own half, and instead he is being given more opportunities to affect things in the final third. The more United have the ball, the more it plays to the Belgian’s qualities.
And that makes him a fixture in this Manchester United setup for some time to come. There are people portraying themselves as United fans who continue to ask why Fellaini is still a part of the squad, seemingly preferring an aesthetically-pleasing XI to an effective, winning one.
As Mourinho said after the win over Palace, "I have always trusted Marouane, since day one, and try to give him cofidence and show him how useful he is for the team."
While there are much tougher games than this one to come for Mourinho’s side, Fellaini has done everything anyone could ask of him so far. There can be no doubting that he’s there on merit for the time being at least.