If you had been told in July 2016 that Jose Mourinho’s first Champions League match as Manchester United manager would be marked by a goal from Marouane Fellaini assisted by Ashley Young then you would have heartily laughed and wondered a) how two such uninspiring utility players could survive three transfer windows with the king of both specialists and spending and b) how on earth United could have possibly qualified for the Champions League with that pair still heavily involved.
The answer is that the pair are by no means heavily involved – they have played just 46 minutes of Premier League football in the opening four fixtures – and yet both are differing degrees of vital for Jose Mourinho, who has come to appreciate the value of players who will follow instructions to the letter and with unparalleled enthusiasm regardless of whether they are playing twice a week or twice a month.
“He’s an important player for me – a lot more important than you can imagine,” said Mourinho this week when faced with the prospect of a second consecutive game without his beanpole talisman. He had convinced himself that United would have beaten Stoke if only they had Fellaini; not having the Belgian to hand clearly makes him as uneasy as a man who cannot quite remember where he placed his keys. He is the world’s most unlikely comfort blanket.
Mourinho is unlikely to say that he feels “weaker” without Young, but he was more than willing to retain a player who had started just eight Premier League games last season. There was no place for Young in a team augmented by £300m of new recruits in two summers, but Mourinho is too canny not to find a place in his squad for a player whose attitude and application has never been in question. Young perhaps should have left for a last hurrah with a mid-table club who would have reminded him that he was once a dynamic winger, but he stayed at United for that occasional tap on the shoulder and for occasional nights like these.
With that one cross for Fellaini to convert for United’s first goal of this Champions League adventure, Mourinho’s decision to keep Young on board was justified. It is easy to forget in the noise of expensive acquisitions that such quietly excellent bit-part players still exist, relatively happy to sit on benches and listen intently to team talks for games they will miss. They not only exist but can be vital; just ask Sir Alex Ferguson about the latter-day John O’Shea.
“If I have to break my foot for him, I’ll do it. That’s me,” said Fellaini in May when talking about the remarkable loyalty he feels towards a manager who values him in a way that almost nobody could have predicted. He positively bounds off the bench, intent on proving in every single game that he deserves to be playing for one of the world’s biggest clubs under one of the world’s most decorated managers. Not to you, me or the Manchester United fans who still instinctively groan at his introduction, but to Mourinho himself. Every awkward sprint, every towering header, every messy elbow is delivered with a side of ‘look boss, I am worthy’.
For all Paul Pogba’s brilliance, he will never offer to break his foot for his manager; it does not fit his brand or his status. But nor will his manager ever bemoan his absence with that special kind of sadness that Mourinho saves for those strange days when he is lacking his totemic talisman.