Written by Ian Colgan (@Ian_Colgan):
Mourinho’s thinking has not always been easy to comprehend since arriving in Manchester, but he’s already been vindicated for some of the perceived mistakes he’s said to have made over the last few months. Mkhitaryan, for instance, looks far better now than he did prior to being taken out of the team for a period to whip himself into shape.
As United’s league prospects for this season continued to diminish in late October and into November, Mourinho took a lot of flak for underutilizing and then brutally discarding a player who had 15 assists in the Bundesliga last season and who he paid over £26 million for.
From the outside Mkhitaryan’s exile made no sense at all, but in the four games since his reintroduction he has two goals and two assists, compared to none in eight appearances prior to that, and Mourinho is now being praised for his expert handling of the situation.
The wisdom of his late substitutions has been the latest aspect of Mourinho’s decision making to be questioned, particularly the perverted impulse that prompted him to bring on Marouane Fellaini as an 85th minute substitute against Everton to help ‘see out’ the 1-0 win. Time might also prove Mourinho right for his persistent faith in Fellaini, who he’s now backed publically as a player who will always have his “trust and protection”. But again, in a much different way, Mourinho has found himself operating against the main tide of supporters’ opinion.
"Everton is not a passing team any more like they were in the past,” Mourinho explained. “Everton is a team that plays direct: goalkeeper direct, Ashley Williams direct, Funes Mori direct. Everything direct. When you have on the bench a player with two metres (in height) you play the player in front of the defensive line to help the team to win the match.”
Which makes a certain kind of sense, except, perhaps, when the player you are thrusting into the fray is Fellaini, a graceless, spindly brute who’s racked up almost 70 bookings and committed over 700 fouls since coming to the Premier League in 2008...A man Howard Webb once referred to as a “thug”, and perhaps the only United player that fans talk about in terms as strong as ‘not being fit to wear the shirt’.
Four minutes later, Mourinho’s decision to bring Fellaini on backfired horribly when he clumsily fouled Idrissa Gueye in the box to concede a penalty – a typical Fellaini moment that explained why fans routinely curse his name, and why many of them booed him and howled with anguish when they saw him warming up on the sidelines on Sunday against Spurs and when he was brought on some minutes later.
They were wrong to boo their own player, but it was an understandable reaction, given that they were probably gripped by horrifying flashbacks at the time; that when they saw Fellaini warming up, taking his tracksuit top off and being fed instructions, their minds were flooded with powerful and distressing nightmare visions of what he did the week before and all the things he might have been about to do to jeopardize the victory again.
The dominant thinking among fans when a player is introduced in the closing minutes to help defend their team’s lead should not be the hope that he stays as far away from his own box as possible, but that is now the attitude that Fellaini will have to try to win over. And he will probably be given a lot of opportunities to do so, because he’s now in the ‘inner circle’, with Mourinho stating that he likes Fellaini both as a player and a person.
Considered a misfit by a large portion of supporters when he was signed by David Moyes over three years ago, there was an assumption when Mourinho was put in charge that he would ‘rectify’ matters by either selling Fellaini or condemning him to a Schweinsteiger-style freeze out, but by the time Fellaini was starting against Chelsea in late October it was clear that Mourinho saw the same functional merits in him as van Gaal did.
Having thought about it, it’s probably less of a shock that Fellaini has been relied upon by Mourinho than it was when he became a stalwart under van Gaal. As a tall, physical player with substantial stamina, on a surface level Fellaini fits the mould of the ideal Mourinho midfielder. The problem and contradiction with Fellaini is that he possesses all of the outer physical attributes suited for playing in a deep defensive role, but not the ability or dexterity for it. A strange crossbreed of some kind between a second striker and box-to-box midfielder, Fellaini defies a clear-cut definition, and a few years ago even Fellaini himself was quoted as saying he wasn’t quite sure what his best position was.
A player with useful aerial skills, particularly in ‘duel’ situations, it’s understandable why Mourinho might have felt that the situation called for Fellaini in the closing stages against Everton, but what he perhaps failed to weigh into his thinking were the characteristics that also make Fellaini a liability who’s hard to like or warm to; a lumbering, overly aggressive style that comes across as a product of reckless stupidity rather than anything born out of a calculated maliciousness.
Any opponent challenging for a 50/50 ball with Fellaini can reasonably expect to catch a wild flailing elbow to the jaw or the floating rib. For a long time I had struggled to accurately define or describe Fellaini’s off-the-ball defensive style, but it dawned on me about a year and a half ago when I was watching a Barcelona match.
Neymar, who was having a poor game generally, had attempted one trick too many, was dispossessed, and in an attempt to make amends for it and win back possession quickly he ‘lashed out’ and committed a rash and clumsy foul out of clear embarrassment and built-up frustration.
“Now that’s just plain stupid,” the person beside me remarked. “What’s he trying to do? God, what a damn fool...” I agreed. It happens all the time, but it was only then, after watching several slow motion replays of Neymar’s foul, that I recognised it as Fellaini’s default style going into almost every tackle he makes - like a player operating with a permanent blood rush to the head, overcompensating after making a mistake or giving the ball away, in a constant state of frantic atonement.
The penalty Fellaini conceded against Everton made perfect sense. Even his former teammate Leon Osman, in the post-match analysis, said he wasn’t surprised by it. “When he played for us we wanted him as far away from our box as possible,” Osman said. “I find it strange that Man Utd play him on the edge of their own box.”
The opinion of Gary Neville was that Mourinho’s substitution was correct and that Fellaini had let him down with an individual blunder, which was true, but didn’t prevent Mourinho from being blamed for the ‘negative’ move of injecting into the mix a player with known tendencies to foul, hurt, assault and jab, and assign him a defensive role.
Mkhitaryan is injured now, which means that Fellaini might start tonight against Crystal Palace...And he might also score, but that would still probably not redeem him in the eyes of fans who have designated him a perpetual interloper – a player who will not only always fail to live up to expectations, but someone who even operating at his best would never quite be considered worthy. The high standards at Old Trafford remain, regardless of what their league position might suggest.