Jose Mourinho has thus far opted to pair his record signing Pogba in midfield with Nemanja Matic, a player with whom he won the title with Chelsea. That has meant a premium on Fellaini’s game time, with only around 45 minutes banked by the Belgian in league competition this season across three matches.
Fellaini did not make the matchday squad for last weekend’s 2-2 draw at Stoke City, having been damaged on international duty with Belgium. Mourinho revealed before the Champions League game against Basel on Tuesday that the 29-year-old played in the World Cup qualification win against Greece with a calf problem and that ruled him out of contention for Saturday evening’s fixture.
United struggled against the Potters and drew for the first time this campaign; it was the first game in which they could not turn to Fellaini to shore things up late on.
Fellaini was back in Mourinho’s squad for Basel with the manger admitting to feeling “weaker” when he was not available to him.
The midfielder was the direct beneficiary of Pogba’s torn hamstring, coming on after only 19 minutes for his longest appearance thus far this campaign. He impressed; scoring one and assisting another and ensuring that this weekend’s game against former club Everton could see him in the starting line-up.
Ander Herrera – who did not make the squad for Basel – and Michael Carrick could also come into contention but Fellaini’s form and recent contributions could see him gain the shirt.
“Since I arrived, he’s trying to give me absolutely everything,” Mourinho said to MUTV on Tuesday. “To me, to the team and to the club. I couldn’t be more pleased with him.”
He scored in the recent win against Leicester for good measure and appears finally to have won over those sceptical United fans who never wanted him at the club in the first place.
No one player epitomised the David Moyes version of Manchester United than Fellaini did. A deadline day signing in 2013 for £28 million, Fellaini struggled to find a receptive audience at Old Trafford, where fans associated him with the turgid, unimaginative football Moyes brought with him from Everton.
He had his part to play under successor Louis van Gaal, too, without ever impressing the locals. United, as a whole, had been underperforming since the departure of Sir Alex Ferguson and Fellaini’s presence was emblematic of the difficulties the club had in moving on.
When Mourinho entered the arena, Fellaini’s days were reckoned to be numbered, with Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Pogba arriving to complete the Portuguese’s new-look midfield.
One characteristic Fellaini possesses in spades, however, is determination. He has successfully won over every manager he’s had despite initially appearing unsuitable for their respective systems of play. Even Roberto Martinez at Belgium has given Fellaini a platform on the international stage having once questioned whether or not he’d be suitable for his kind of football at Everton.
Fellaini’s staying power and his utter devotion to whatever manager is in charge make him a huge favourite. His attitude is perfect and he never fails to give his best. He has his limitations – as evidenced in giving away a penalty against Everton last season – but Mourinho has nonetheless persisted with him.
The manager revealed late in the transfer window that Turkish side Galatasaray were interested in signing the former Standard Liege star but insisted he was so integral to plans now that it would be easier for them to sign Mourinho himself.
It was after that Everton game that United fans poured boos in his ears while warming up for the subsequent fixture against Tottenham. Mourinho dedicated that win to Fellaini, who did not deserve that kind of treatment.
Mourinho is understood to have asked Fellaini to prove he was worth keeping at the club while under such relentless scrutiny from the fans. There is no question that he has now done that.