Coming off the bench to score a towering header against Algeria—a goal that drew Belgium level—Fellaini used his physicality and positional awareness to great effect. Five days later against Russia, he was handed a starting role, playing in a three-man midfield with Axel Witsel and Kevin De Bruyne.
On both occasions he looked far more comfortable in the red of Belgium than he did in the red of United.
And despite being quiet in a low-key game against South Korea, Fellaini seemed more at ease with himself and what was expected of him.
The reason for it is that he’s able to play in his best position for Belgium, but the same will never be true at United. That’s why Fellaini should leave Old Trafford.
It would be the best outcome for club and player.
His Positional Problems Can’t be Solved at United
Fellaini looked most uncomfortable last season when he picked the ball up deep in midfield and looked to move forward, scanning the pitch to make an incisive, probing pass. It’s just not his game.
It was a position he was thrust into because United were—and still are—in need of midfielders.
In Belgium’s win over Russia, which secured their passage to the knockout rounds, Fellaini played in between midfield and attack. He was anchored by Witsel and, to a lesser extent, De Bruyne, who enabled him to get forward.
Look at Witsel’s (left) and Fellaini’s (right) heat maps from that game. It’s clear that Fellaini was given something of a freer role to cause Russia problems in the final third:
At United last season, Fellaini played a role akin to the one that Witsel does so effectively for Belgium.
United could replicate Belgium’s system to suit Fellaini, but Juan Mata and Wayne Rooney are better players in that area behind the striker. Even the newly signed Ander Herrera would get the nod in that role ahead of Fellaini.
The only position that Fellaini can realistically play is in central midfield. United have far too many attacking players for the Belgian to be able to play further forward than he did last season.
Therefore, the only relevant question is whether Fellaini is capable of playing effectively in central midfield—and the answer is a resounding no.
Fellaini isn’t going to solve United’s problems in midfield, and the factors that saw him struggle last season are not easily remedied. He’s not going to suddenly blossom into a deep-lying playmaker, develop a sense of control in midfield or be at the heart of a team playing technical, skilled football.
Fellaini is at his best when he’s allowed to be a nuisance, to disrupt the opposition at both ends of the pitch. That’s why a move would suit him more than anyone else.
A Move Would Be the Best-Case Scenario
United saw firsthand at the start of the 2012/13 season just how devastating Fellaini can be when used properly.
But it’s hard to ever imagine United revamping their style and playing a physical brand of football. If Fellaini is to replicate his best form for Everton it will likely have to be away from Old Trafford, which is why a transfer would be good for him.
Everton would probably not want him back now that Roberto Martinez has introduced a different style of football at Goodison Park, and it’s hard to imagine him signing for another Premier League team.
Joining a European side where he would be able to play Champions League football is the best-case scenario for Fellaini.
Are United Likely to Sell Fellaini?
The answer to the above question depends on Louis van Gaal’s plans for United.
What should United do with Fellaini?
If he wants to use Fellaini off the bench when United are chasing the game or protecting a lead, to deploy him as a makeshift battering ram, then fine. There are few better than Fellaini at doing that. He could be a very effective substitute.
But if Van Gaal looks to play expansive, attacking football, which is almost a certainty, then Fellaini will find himself out of favour. He just doesn’t have the technical or tactical nous required of a United player.
And so when Van Gaal does look to sign players more inclined to playing the United way, perhaps his first order of business should be to try and secure around £15 million for Fellaini.
That way, United and Fellaini can move on from a transfer that should never have gone ahead in the first place.
Fellaini has to be given the opportunity to do what he does best, but he won’t get that chance at United.