Manchester United bolstered their hopes of finishing in the Premier League’s top four with a convincing 3-0 victory over Tottenham at Old Trafford yesterday, which virtually rules their defeated opponents out of the Champions League qualification running.
Although the individual brilliance of Wayne Rooney, the calming presence of Michael Carrick against his former club and the meek nature of the opposition all played key roles in the most convincing performance of the season for Louis van Gaal’s men, Marouane Fellaini’s influence should not be overlooked.
The giant Belgian put in a man-of-the-match performance, scoring the opener and had Spurs players chasing shadows all afternoon with his clever movement off the ball and physical presence.
Fellaini has had to endure something of a rollercoaster ride at Old Trafford since signing for the famous Manchester club on the last day of the 2013 summer transfer window.
With United crying out for a world-class box-to-box midfielder to dominate affairs, the Old Trafford faithful felt they were short-changed given the significant investment of a cool £27.5 million on the burly Belgian.
Initially Fellaini struggled to adapt to life at United and his best role in the team was undetermined.
With United lacking a combative presence in the boiler room and abject of energy, the hard-working 27-year-old was deployed in the centre of midfield with underwhelming results.
His physical attributes suggested he fitted the bill of the Red Devils’ enforcer, but low confidence, injury concerns and question marks over his passing had the United fans doubting Fellaini.
The ex-Everton star was largely treated as a figure of farce amongst this own and other fans, while he was heavily criticised by supporters and pundits alike.
Fast forward 12 months and the Moyes favourite has ironically been revitalised under Van Gaal, with his place in the starting XI serving more of a purpose.
The likes of the versatile Daley Blind and industrious Ander Herrera have filled the void in the centre of midfield when called upon, while Carrick’s underrated presence continues to be a source of success.
This has given Fellaini a licence to play further forward in a withdrawn and fluid number ten role, where his aerial ability and attacking threat are best utilised.
United fans were concerned that the signing of the Belgian would lead to a shift in playing style from the dynamic and energetic passing game the club became famed for under Sir Alex Ferguson to a more direct approach under Moyes.
With the presence of technically gifted footballers such as Blind, Carrick, Herrera and Juan Mata in the side yesterday, the home team’s first impulsion was to get the ball down and pass it.
However, a number of carefully placed longer balls saw Fellaini win aerial contests, nodding possession to a team-mate and moving into space as an effective second option.
Spurs could not cope with Fellaini’s presence between their defence and midfield, with neither of their youthful battlers Ryan Mason or Nabil Bentaleb getting close enough to the Belgian to close down his space or comprising the stature to contest aerial bouts with him.
As a result, Fellaini made best use of an abject display from Kyle Walker to find space between the England international and Eric Dier to finish with aplomb in the opening stages.
Fellaini continued to drift across the pitch, predominantly to the left, where he was picked out time and again by Blind.
From there he brought others into the game and showed confidence in possession that was lacking last season.
Fellaini’s work-rate off the ball meant that Spurs were plagued in their own half all afternoon and his combinations with Rooney were top class.
Given that Robin van Persie is not the player he once was and Radamel Falcao has not settled in the United team or in England, Van Gaal may well have found his first-choice pairing in yesterday’s attacking duo.
For Fellaini, he can feel vindicated that he has proven his doubters wrong, with his unique skillset starting to play an important role in United’s successful transitional period.