Fellaini Impresses As Round Peg In Round Hole

Marouane Fellaini's reputation has declined alarmingly in the last year, but against Algeria he saved his country's skin. Feed his attributes and he will prosper, says Daniel Storey...

Last Updated: 18/06/14 at 09:44 Post Comment

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Despite significant concerns following a rotten first 45 minutes, the hipsters can sip their artisan beers in peace now, saved by a second-half performance after the break that saw Belgium become the sixth team in the competition to win from behind - this truly is the tournament that keeps on giving.

Things had not started well for Marc Wilmots' much-vaunted side. Algeria were undoubtedly better than many had expected, but Belgium were insipid and uninspiring during the first half. Romelu Lukaku was turgid, removed after less than an hour after failing to influence the match in any way. The Chelsea striker was left isolated in attack by a system that seemed to force Hazard to stick close to the left wing and away from the spotlight. This problem was exacerbated by the presence of Jan Vertonghen at left-back, the natural central defender providing little attacking impetus despite Belgium's dominance of possession. Hazard therefore found it difficult to drift infield.

Instead, it was not Hazard but a much more maligned Premier League player who turned the game on its head, Marouane Fellaini coming off the bench to score a quite wonderful header past Raïs M'Bohli in the Algerian goal. After Dries Mertens (another second-half substitute) had given Belgium the lead, Fellaini still found time to force M'Bohli into an excellent diving save to repel a second header. Wilmots may claim that his introductions were inspired, but one should expect a very different starting side against Russia on Sunday.

There may be no player in Europe whose reputation fell further over the course of last season than Fellaini, his fortunes seemingly entwined with those of David Moyes. But, whilst Moyes departed Old Trafford in April, the midfielder continued to lurk in the shadows of a club in need of rebuilding. He started just 12 Premier League games last season, and within five minutes of his introduction against Algeria had surpassed his Manchester United goal tally of the last year.

Away from the shackles of domestic pressure and expectation, Fellaini looked invigorated and noticeably keen to involve himself in attacking play. His 19 touches in 20 minutes was only one fewer than Lukaku had managed in 58, and Fellaini also won the ball back from Algerian players more than any other Belgium player despite the brief nature of his cameo. Finally, is this light at the end of a long and dark tunnel?

Well, perhaps, but it is crucial to note that Fellaini was operating noticeably higher up the pitch than has been the case for United, employed by Wilmots almost in a no. 10 position without the typical responsibilities of the no. 10 role. Instead, the tactic was to look for Fellaini's head and then feed off the knock-downs, his aggression (and no little quality) in the tackle a bonus for a side looking to press and win the ball high up the field.

This is not an unfamiliar role for Fellaini, who was successful in his final season at Everton under Moyes when acting as a battering ram in the opposition area, hugely threatening from crosses like the one provided by Kevin de Bruyne on Tuesday. Typically picked behind Nikica Jelavic with two of Steven Pienaar, Kevin Mirallas and Steven Naismith out wide, Fellaini was an almost constant headache for central defenders (any surprise at 6'4" and with a fine leap?), and was comfortably Everton's top scorer in 2012/13 with 11 in the Premier League.

Despite such success, change was afoot. "David Moyes predicts my future as a defensive midfielder," Fellaini said in May 2013 when hinting of a move to Old Trafford, and perhaps therein lies the problem. "But due to a lack of offensive power, he plays me up front. In the future I want to play as a six or an eight. From there, I can create danger and score goals."

Fellaini may not yet be ready to accept it, but (like so much else) perhaps Moyes got that wrong. In attempting to convert the Belgian into a ball-playing midfielder he blunted Fellaini's greatest weapons, the aerial strength and attacking presence proved so useful in the defeat of Algeria. Paying an extortionate £27.5million merely piled on further pressure.

Whether Louis van Gaal is prepared to allow Fellaini to flourish in such a role seems doubtful, however. With Adnan Januzaj, Shinji Kagawa, Juan Mata and Wayne Rooney already fighting for a similar space (in pitch position if not role) at Old Trafford and others perhaps set to join them, it may be that Fellaini has to move elsewhere to be at his most effective. On the evidence of Tuesday, there should be no shortage of takers. That's what happens when you put round pegs in round holes.

Daniel Storey - follow him on Twitter

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