Back in early May, when Sir Alex Ferguson's surprise retirement announcement came, and when that was immediately followed by David Moyes being appointed as the legendary manager's successor, I advocated that the new Manchester United boss should make Marouane Fellaini the first signing of his new reign.
Debate is good (when people aren't being numpties). While I'd still be glad if we signed Fellaini -- and this includes whether or not we get a top-class midfielder like Cesc Fabregas -- there's been some good discussion in these parts and in other mediums on whether or not he'd be a good signing for United. The debate has allowed some lingering doubt to creep into my mind about my conviction earlier that the Belgian would be a great signing for Moyes.
Here are some of the key points I made in May about why Fellaini would be a great signing for United and also some thoughts about what I think now:
1. Only Manchester City's Yaya Toure rivals Fellaini as the most physically-imposing and versatile midfielder in England. For the first-half of this season, the Belgian international was unplayable on frequent occasions -- United saw this first-hand in the season-opener at Goodison Park*.
Quite simply, Fellaini is an imposing force in multiple positions because he's a dominant ball-winner anywhere on the pitch. It's important to keep in mind that his technical ability is sound enough for nearly any club in the world** and his ability to score from late-arriving runs into the box or from set-pieces is an elite weapon as well. This is the kind of player Manchester United could certainly use and they will soon have a manager who knows how to utilize the talented Belgian.
* I discussed later in the piece on how Fellaini spent the majority of the past season in a unique role as a physical and target-man No.10 for Everton. Quite obviously, he'd hardly ever be in that role for United unless it was late in the game as a 'Plan B' -- more on that, actually, in a bit. Here's highlights of his dominance at Goodison Park over us in last season's opener. Phil Jones, though, nullified him in the reverse fixture in a pseudo man-marking role.
** Arguable, I know.
- Fellaini has one world-class skill that would make him really useful in this United squad: "he's a dominant ball-winner anywhere on the pitch." He can do this as a holding-midfielder that protects the back four as a No.6, he can be a destroyer in the center of the pitch in a No.8 role, and the video above shows his ability to win and keep the ball as an unorthodox No.10. I understand there are some doubts about his technical ability and his fluidity in movement, but I still think he'd be an effective squad player because he offers a physicality and combativeness that would allow him to screen for more technical players such as Carrick (and any other elite midfield signing this summer or next). I would also argue that he's more mobile than some give him credit for.
2. Prior to this [past 2012-13] season though, Fellaini has mostly been deployed as a deep-lying central-midfielder in Everton's 4-4-1-1 shape. During his first four seasons in England, he established himself as one of the top players in the Premier League in this role. Not only was his athleticism and combative nature being appreciated, but increasingly, so was his ability to help keep possession. Fellaini is obviously no Paul Scholes or Xavi, but nor is he Andy Carroll playing in the center of the park. He was responsible with the ball (he impressively only conceded possession 33 times in 34 league games during the 2011-12 season), his passing range was decent, and he did well to make himself available for passes.
- This is precisely the sort of player United have badly needed in midfield since Darren Fletcher became ill. Again, although Fellaini would only need to not turn the ball over and get the ball to more technical players like Carrick or the attacking players after he won the ball, I understand the concern if you're wondering if he would do this quickly enough - this is my biggest concern as well. As Callum wonders, would he look out of place in a grand European knock-out stage tie against the likes of Barcelona, Bayern Munich, Juventus, and Real Madrid? -- or might his physicality actually be overpowering and allow United to compete in the center of the park for the first time in years against these caliber of sides? That's an unknown.
3. At Everton, Moyes has shown that he trusts central-midfielders that exhibit tidy passing (long range passing ability out to the flanks is definite plus for him too), positional awareness, and at least one player with some energy and mobility. Michael Carrick has the first two desired traits in spades while Fellaini is also player Moyes obviously trusts in this role. The Belgian, unlike any other player on Everton besides left-back Leighton Baines, is probably the only Toffee talented enough to be on the United squad. As a central-midfielder partnership, Carrick and Fellaini could potentially be the best in England while they would formidable in Europe too. They would seemingly compliment each other well with the former being calm and stationed in front of the back four while the latter could be an energetic and destructive force in a box-to-box role.
- United's double-pivot under Moyes won't likely operate much different than his Everton sides. The only caveat is that, presumably, the Scot will give his current and future central-midfielders a bit more freedom in movement and in creativity because the caliber of players will be better. Keep in mind, though, that Moyes has proven to be a reactive manager during his own long reign at Goodison. Therefore, he could still take a counterattacking approach in 'big games' and want to use two defensively stable central-midfielders like Carrick and Fellaini. There's nothing wrong with this, of course, as even Ferguson became much more pragmatic in the latter half of his United reign -- a time when United were as good in Europe as they've ever been.
4. Carrick is currently established as perhaps the only reliable player for nearly any occassion in the United midfield. Tom Cleverley is hopefully still developing into a more consistent player while Phil Jones continues to insist that his long-term future is as a central-defender and not as a destructive central-midfielder. Anderson's future is up in the air as well. Fellaini could fill a massive need as central-midfield has been United's proverbial achilles heel for quite some time now.
- In an ideal world, where we actually spend proportionate to our incredible revenue streams on a consistent basis, I'd actually love Fellaini as a 3rd or 4th choice midfielder -- even for his release clause price -- because he offers a balance to the midfield... and he could surprise us by being better than any of us of thought he could be. If it doesn't work out in the next two years, so be it, he'll still has some sell-on value. It's a gamble worth taking in that scenario, in my opinion. I'm just increasingly terrified we'll spend £23 million on him and that will be the marquee signing that Moyes has to depend for years to come (this is my scarred Glazernomics side coming out). It's telling that the elite sides in Europe have the likes of Cesc, Luka Modric, Paul Pogba, and possibly any of Thiago, Luis Gustavo, Javi Martinez, and Toni Kroos** as second-choice players while we have a soon-to-be 40-year-old Ryan Giggs. We all love the legendary Giggsy, but I think you get my point...
** I know I could have named a few more players, but thinking about Bayern's midfield makes my head spin now. .
5. Fellaini could also be a 'plan B' for Moyes. Shinji Kagawa and Wayne Rooney, if the latter isn't sold in the summer, are likely to be the first-choice options as No.10s. The Belgian, though, could present Moyes with a more physical option in that role and he could be pushed high up the pitch late in games when United are bombarding the box with crosses while scrambling for a needed goal.
- First, I refer you back to the video above...
- Quite simply, when teams are trying to protect a result against United, Fellaini could be an incredibly useful option late in games while chasing a goal. Moyes emphasized width at Everton -- as has Ferguson at United, particularly in domestic ties -- so both the manager and the current squad will know how to laterally stretch the playing space in the attacking third. When opponents defend deep, compact, and in a narrow shape, the available space in the attacking third is generally out wide -- from here, the wide attackers have the time to whip in crosses. I'd like to see the big-haired Belgian scoring some stoppage-time winners in this scenario. This simple move, pushing Fellaini higher up the pitch as a nominal striker while bringing in a more creative and incisive midfielder in behind to supply the attack, would be a useful 'Plan B' for United.
Anyway, hopefully you read this piece and I'd love to hear your opinions on the potential signing of Fellaini. I'm generally going to stay out out of the discussion because my thoughts hopefully are somewhat clear and obvious by now. I am for the Fellaini signing, but I have some reservations. If you have any specific questions for me, though, feel free to put them in the comments sections and I'll get to them when I can.