Though the former Everton star could match the Red Devils' more direct approach this season by playing behind the striker, a physical presence deep in midfield is most needed
By George Ankers
It took them all summer, cost them £27.5 million and a great deal of their credibility, but Manchester United finally got their man in Marouane Fellaini.
While the negotiations were handled shambolically, resulting in a fee £4m higher than it would have been before the Belgium international's Everton release clause expired earlier in the window, it had reached the point where any competent midfielder at any sub-stratospheric price would improve David Moyes's squad. And Fellaini will.
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On the face of it, Moyes could deploy Fellaini in either role but the fact that the Red Devils spent the whole summer trying to sign him alongside a series of slighter No.10s – first Thiago, then Cesc Fabregas, before finally coming down to Ander Herrera – should make clear his intentions.
In the long term, the Scot clearly sees another player slotting in behind Robin van Persie and it will therefore fall to Fellaini to make an impact in his 'original' deeper position, anchoring an engine room that has for so long lacked a true enforcer.
So far, Tom Cleverley has been tasked with partnering Michael Carrick in defensive midfield but, for all his willingness, offers little presence – a fact particularly noticeable in United's 1-0 defeat to Liverpool before the international break. Just as it was, in fact, when Fellaini bossed the game in Everton's 1-0 win over United to kick off their 2012-13 campaign.
Whereas before the likes of Steven Gerrard and Lucas Leiva could take control of the middle ground against the Red Devils, now Fellaini can be used to seize and secure the ball. Having won 18 out of 20 aerial duels so far this season, the Belgian is unmatched in the ranks of Premier League midfielders at winning possession from the air, while he averages more tackles per game this season (4.3) than Cleverley (1.7) and Carrick (2) combined. With a pass completion rate of 89.1 per cent in 2013-14, he can also then distribute efficiently.
This brute strength should prove an effective contrast to Carrick's calm and positional sense, the 32-year-old offering 4.2 interceptions per game this year as opposed to Fellaini's 0.7. This should give United the answer against both power and guile, while allowing Cleverley to run and create with greater freedom in a more attacking role.
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With a greater focus in that direction in the new era, it will be tempting to push Fellaini forward in order to capitalise. His aerial prowess would allow the intelligent runs of Van Persie, Wayne Rooney, Danny Welbeck et al to latch onto knockdowns aplenty.
Should the Belgian gravitate forward from his defensive area so as to meet these deliveries in a more dangerous position, however, canny teams might be able to exploit the indiscipline. Yet to play 'short long balls' aimed squarely at the centre circle, or continuing to hit them forwards but bypassing Fellaini, would be inefficient.
Ideally, the temptation to use him as a £27.5m battering ram should be resisted. Van Persie is so accomplished already at creating his own space that he is in no desperate need of a Fellaini figure and, besides, United outscored every other Premier League team by 11 goals or more last season. With only major signing in the bag, the most pressing weaknesses must be addressed and firepower is certainly not that.
In contrast to their goals, last year's champions conceded more than four of their fellow top-six teams, in part due to their cowering against Fellaini's ilk. The opportunity to finally, finally press the right size of plug into a Roy Keane-shaped socket is too important to pass up.
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