For five years it was always the same. If Manchester United were down a goal, or searching for a late winner, the cameras would pan down towards the touchline where a tall Belgian with big curly hair was waiting to come on. “Here comes Plan B,” the commentators would say.
It didn’t matter whether the manager was José Mourinho, Louis van Gaal, or David Moyes. The three managers all had different tactical styles but one thing was the same: if United needed a late goal, you called on Marouane Fellaini.
For a club whose fans have had divided feelings about several players, Fellaini was probably the most divisive of all.
Most felt he was never talented enough to truly be a “Manchester United player,” a symbol of the mediocrity the club had fallen into. Others appreciated the effort he gave every time he stepped on the pitch, and touted his ability to score big late goals. Even last season there were still fans who were up in arms about Ole Gunnar Solskjaer selling him to China, believing the team could have used him in some games.
Fellaini never was technical enough to play for United but you can’t blame him for being around as long as he was. There were three managers in England who appreciated his talent and they just happened to be the three Manchester United managers. Van Gaal loved his aerial threat, Mourinho loved that he was a bully in midfield, and Moyes... well he was a star for Moyes’ Everton.
There’s just one problem with all that. None of those facts make him a good “plan B.”
The narrative that Fellaini was a valuable plan B who scored many big goals for United is exactly that. A narrative. The reality paints a far different picture.
In five and a half years, Fellaini made 177 appearances for Manchester United — 72 of those came as a substitute — and scored 22 goals. . Of Fellaini’s 22 goals, 7 were scored in the 80th minute or later.
Scoring nearly a third of your goals in the last 10 minutes is pretty good, that is until you take a closer look.
Of the seven goals Fellaini scored in the final 10 minutes only three of them broke a deadlock to give United the win or were the equalizer (we can say four if you want to count Bonucci’s own goal at Juventus last year that Fellaini definitely influenced). One of those winners (2018/19 Champions League vs Young Boys) Fellaini started the match, so in this case it simply took 90 minutes for Plan A to come through. Only twice (2017/18 vs Arsenal and 2018/19 League Cup vs Derby) did Fellaini come off the bench to grab a late equalizer or winner (United ended up losing to Derby on penalties).
Twice. Out of 72 substitute appearances (obviously not all of those substitute appearances came with the game level or the reds down a single goal).
No matter what you say, two goals (again, three if you count the Juventus OG) is not an effective plan B. That shouldn’t come as a surprise. When Fellaini came on everyone and their mother knew what United were going to do. It was going to be route one; hoof the ball downfield, get it wide, and then pop a cross in towards the big guy. That predictability made United very easy to defend against.
There was also the problem that the rest of United wasn’t built to play this way. Most of the players in the team get by on technical ability, speed, and/or creativity. Marcus Rashford isn’t a big towering striker who can get on the end of crosses, nor is he a great crosser. In fact, United haven’t really had any great crossers over the past few years. Their best one was Ashley Young, who impressively assisted on six of Fellaini’s 22 goals (oh, and Young was the one who played the ball in on that Juventus OG). But for everyone else, when Fellaini came on it meant it was time to cater to him, rather than playing to their strengths.
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has changed that. He jettisoned Fellaini in January, eliminating United’s predictable plan B and creating a new one.
Solskjaer’s plan B isn’t a set. There’s a lot of different ways he can go, giving opponents a different look or introducing a new threat.
Dan James can come in on the left as a classic winger. He can beat defenders with his pace or lure them into committing fouls, something all the more dangerous with Harry Maguire in the team. He can also come in and play on the right so more of a wide forward similar to how Rashford plays on the left. He can also opt for the young Mason Greenwood to run at tired defenders.
Pace is great but Solskjaer can also turn to creativity with Juan Mata. Mata’s goal and assists numbers may be down since his Chelsea days, but he remains United’s best off-the-ball player. His intelligent runs occupy defenders and create space for United’s playmakers. Not to mention he’s a heck of a free kick taker.
It doesn’t necessarily have to be the player introduced that can become the threat. Last season Jesse Lingard was introduced with United down 2-0 to Burnley. The energy he brought to the press changed the game in United’s favor and eventually they were able to claw back a 2-2 draw.
Solskjaer has plenty of options but the most important part is, no matter which route he chooses, the rest of the players don’t need to change. Anthony Martial and Marcus Rashford are still looking to get behind defenders. Paul Pogba is still looking to pick out a killer pass to a forward, or make a late arriving run into the box.
Fellaini’s introduction meant a new threat for the defense to think about, but it was the only threat. They knew exactly where the ball was supposed to go. This season whomever Solskjaer introduces will provide a new threat for the opposition to think about, but they’ll still have to be wary of the ones already on the field.
That level of unpredictability will make United’s new plan B a far more effective plan B.