Marouane Fellaini got a crucial assist as Manchester United beat archrivals Liverpool on Sunday. While that is indisputable, there is also an argument that his all-round performance nearly cost the Red Devils dearly and showed just why Louis van Gaal should simply never select the Belgium international in deep-lying midfield again.
Ahead of the Liverpool game, United fans on social media had widely shared the statistic that shows their side's record this season was considerably better without Fellaini than with him. Without him in the side, the team had won nine games, drawn three and lost none. With him in the side, they had won six, drawn six and lost eight.
That is perhaps a notable run of results, but what is even more damning from Van Gaal's perspective is that having Fellaini play in the centre of midfield causes United to completely surrender their ability to control possession—the dominant feature of the side this season.
Without that control, their defensive structure has often collapsed in fairly calamitous fashion.
In the league and Champions League, Van Gaal has started Fellaini as part of his midfield two against:
- Wolfsburg away: 52.2 per cent possession, 3-2 loss.
- Bournemouth away: 55.1 per cent possession, 2-1 loss.
- Norwich City at home: an exception with 68.7 per cent possession, but it was still a 2-1 loss.
- Newcastle United away: 48.3 per cent possession, a 3-3 draw.
- Liverpool away: 46.7 per cent possession, a 1-0 win.
All bar one of those games had United maintaining a lower percentage of possession than the 59.2 per cent they average in the league.
He has also played No. 10 and even centre-forward in a couple of games, but those are excluded from consideration here, as this is specifically about the negative impact he has on Van Gaal's system in deep-lying midfield.
Dominance over possession is, of course, not the aim of a football match. Indeed, excessively sterile domination has been a big part of United's problem this season. However, it is not as if they have been more successful when sacrificing that domination with Fellaini in midfield.
The three goals conceded against both Wolfsburg and Newcastle United and losses to two promoted sides tell a story. The nature of those games—where so much of United's defensive play seemed scrappy and desperate—speaks to the problem of putting Fellaini in the centre of the park.
Against Liverpool, United were lucky their inability to dominate the game was not punished. Indeed, it was in spite of a 17 shots-to-nine differential in the home side's favour that United managed a smash-and-grab win. In the first half in particular, it looked like Liverpool's midfield could cut through United's almost at will.
Fellaini's limitations were again exposed. David De Gea managed more successful passes in the opposition half than him, as shared by the BBC's Mark Chapman, using Opta statistics, on Twitter.
Even with the injuries to other midfielders, Fellaini is hardly the only option. Ander Herrera could have played in the midfield two with, say, Juan Mata ahead of him at No. 10.
Alternatively, Herrera and Fellaini could simply have swapped positions, with Fellaini used as the more advanced player, taking advantage of his battering ram-like abilities in the box.
Van Gaal may consider Herrera a riskier option in midfield, but it is hard to understand why. After all, Fellaini gives the ball away a lot, lacks mobility and is averaging a substantially lower number of defensive interventions than Herrera this season—an average of 0.8 tackles and 0.5 interceptions per league game to Herrera's 1.8 and 0.8 respectively.
Sam Pilger, writing about the game for B/R, simply said:
The performance on Sunday showed yet again that Marouane Fellaini is not a United player, and he should only ever be used sparingly as an impact substitute.
The Belgian is certainly not a central midfielder, where his passing against Liverpool was slow and too often misplaced.
That is a neat summation of the problem. Van Gaal should stop turning to the Belgian when looking for a midfield solution because, sadly, doing so makes the situation worse.
All advanced statistics per WhoScored.com where not otherwise noted.