The biggest surprise was not that the Daily Telegraph website produced a gallery list of 13 Manchester United players that ‘Jose Mourinho could flog this month’, but that Marouane Fellaini’s name was not included. Fellaini started 12 league games last season, each of those soundtracked by the groans and gripes of a support that had lost all faith in the Belgian.
Two league games into the new season, and the list of Manchester United impressors is at least as long as the Telegraph’s. This time, the shock is not at Fellaini’s exclusion, but that he features so near the top. On Friday against Southampton, the Belgian completed his second 90-minute league appearance in six days, the same total as in the last six months under Louis van Gaal; Fellaini’s second league start of 2015/16 came on December 5.
By the following morning, Fellaini’s reincarnation at Old Trafford was complete. Newspapers reported that the midfielder would be offered a new two-year contract. Rather than that news being met with mockery and outrage at such paucity of ambition, it was met with shrugs. ‘Well, yeah, that makes some sense I suppose.’
If Manchester United fans were surprised by Fellaini’s inclusion at the expense of Morgan Schneiderlin and Michael Carrick against Bournemouth, few were astounded that he kept his place for the visit of Southampton. After the match, Jose Mourinho praised his midfielder: “Marouane Fellaini was so good. The way the wingers were closing spaces inside. I’m so happy with the organisation of the team.”
Never one to shy away from self-promotion, Mourinho offered his own explanation for Fellaini’s improvement: “Maybe a simple phone call can make a difference to a player who was feeling he was not loved. Everyone was saying he wasn’t for me. Maybe a simple phone call then, after my presentation as Manchester United manager, changed a lot. I said to him, ‘Forget everything you read. With me you don’t leave, for sure’.” Never change, Jose.
For all the credit the manager can appropriately take, the greatest praise should be reserved for the player himself. Having looked embarrassingly out of his depth during most of his three seasons at the club, Fellaini has been a revelation in his opening two games of the season. A clumsy cartoon character footballer has become an all-heading, all-ball-winning central midfielder. It is an astonishing rejuvenation.
During 2015/16, Fellaini made an average of 2.11 tackles per 90 league minutes played. In the small sample size at the start of this season, that figure has increased to 4.0, while he has committed almost three times fewer the number of fouls per 90 minutes. More obvious still is his composure on the ball in tight areas.
Against Southampton Paul Pogba was the obvious star, but – and as Matt Stead wrote here – Manchester United’s fringe players played their own part in the success. So often conspicuous through his underperformance, Fellaini has flipped that reputation on its head; he is the feet kicking under the surface to Pogba’s graceful swan. It’s still early days, but there is evidence that Jose Mourinho has found his new Nemanja Matic in the unlikeliest corner of Old Trafford.