Amid all the talk of what Manchester United might do without Paul Pogba, Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Ander Herrera, the names of Marouane Fellaini and Jesse Lingard were the last to come to most supporters’ minds as they fished for answers to Jose Mourinho’s quandary.
Probably the two least popular players among United’s global fan base delivered in a big way on Sunday as a truly hectic spell of fixtures was brought to an end with a 3-1 victory at Middlesbrough. After 19 weeks in sixth place in the Premier League table United are finally up to fifth, and their supporters would do well to thank Fellaini and Lingard for getting them there.
Nobody would ever suggest Fellaini is the most artistic of midfielders, and in a side which has increased its watchability factor by huge amounts since Louis van Gaal was deposed in the summer he often sticks out like a sore thumb. But he can also be the extra option that United have regularly found themselves lacking. Time and again he has shown that there is a place for a Marouane Fellaini in this Manchester United squad, even if he hasn’t done enough to earn a regular starting spot.
Supposed fans of the club who wince and complain at every inclusion of his name on the teamsheet need to realise that he is a particular type of player for a particular type of job. With his threat in the air, he can be a vital factor at either end of the pitch and situations like the concession of a late penalty against Everton in December are actually outweighed by the positive performances he has delivered.
His late goal against Club Brugge last season gave United the breathing space they needed heading to the away leg which would clinch their spot in the Champions League group stages. Another header at the death against Hull City in the League Cup semi-final in January proved to be the crucial goal of the tie as United squeezed through 3-2 on aggregate on the way to their Wembley triumph.
Similar can be said of Lingard too, who has developed a fair following of haters thanks to an in-and-out campaign. So often when he has been called upon by Mourinho, he has been identified as the reason for United’s impending defeat by so-called fans across the globe a full hour before the game has even begun.
Many wondered why he was part of the starting XI against Southampton in the EFL Cup final last month only to be quietened by his third Wembley goal in nine months late in the first half. His performance on Sunday at the Riverside again underlined exactly what he can do for United, with a dynamic display alongside Juan Mata helping Marcus Rashford to stretch the Middlesbrough backline with regularity.
And midway through the second half it was his excellent driving run and wonderful strike into the top corner which killed the game as a contest. Rudy Gestede might well have pounced on a Chris Smalling error to set the cat amongst the pigeons for the final 15 minutes, but Lingard's goal had given them breathing space and Antonio Valencia's tap-in after Victor Valdes' unsightly injury-time slip finally put the result beyond doubt.
"We don't have A, B, C, D, E, F and G, but we have L, M, N, S , O, P," said Mourinho after the game on the options available to him in his squad. "These guys gave absolutely everything. We started the game really well, and Valdes made three fantastic saves before our first goal. We controlled everything until our second goal."
No doubt about it, Fellaini and Lingard were the match-winners, and the constant desire from United fans to wish ill of their own stars is distasteful. Days like Sunday are a reminder that football is more than just a team game, it is a squad game. If only all squads had players of the ability and will of those two.
This win is for the haters.