In times of trouble, some people turn to God. Jose Mourinho looks for Marouane Fellaini.
Prior to the trip to Burnley a fortnight ago, Mourinho was certainly in bother. Having been humiliated on his own patch by Mauricio Pochettino’s Spurs after his men surrendered so meekly at Brighton, the United boss took his team to Turf Moor amid reports defeat could cost him his job.
Under normal circumstances, the Clarets would be one of the last teams anyone would want to face in such a perilous situation. Their Europa League exertions took the edge off Sean Dyche’s side but Mourinho knew United would need to scrap nonetheless. So out went the £52million Brazil star and in his place came the manager’s crutch.
It was Fellaini’s first start since belatedly signing a new contract. Mourinho lost most of his battles this summer but convincing the club to hand the 30-year-old a somewhat unfathomable contract was a notch in the manager’s win column. Over the last two games, we have seen why Mourinho was so desperate to keep the midfielder few others outside the dressing room would have been sad to see go.
Against two of the Premier League’s more direct sides, who were presumably salivating at the prospect of having their turn on the defence that, appropriately this season, had showed all the resilience of a soggy sheet of the Football Pink, Mourinho opted to put Fellaini front and centre of his attempts to protect the central defenders he so distrusts.
The purists among United’s support might not appreciate it but they cannot argue with the results. After two woeful defeats, it’s two wins and two Man of the Match performances from Fellaini.
The Belgian rarely strayed from within touching distance of Chris Smalling and Victor Lindelof and between the trio, United managed to box in Watford’s biggest threats, Andre Gray and Troy Deeney, who dominated Spurs in the air two weeks ago. Today, though, the Hornets’ front pair won three headers all evening up against Smalling and Fellaini who combined to triumph in 12 aerial battles.
When Fellaini wasn’t patrolling the area in front of the defence, he was dropping into it. It took Watford until the second half to fathom that, and when Gray opted to hold his run rather than dart towards the goal, he found the space to apply a tidy finish and half the hosts’ deficit.
"You have to understand why Jose has got him in his team."
— Football on BT Sport (@btsportfootball) September 15, 2018
But as they threw everything at United in the final stages, the visitors showed a resilience that has too often been missing, inspired by Smalling and Fellaini’s fight.
It was due in most part to that double act that United had a lead to defend. The Red Devils showed almost uncharacteristic ruthlessness to make their first-half dominance count by netting twice in quick succession shortly before half-time from a couple of set-pieces that appeared pre-planned. The way Mourinho celebrated with one of his assistants Kieran McKenna suggested preparation had paid off, with Fellaini wreaking havoc twice at the far post, and Smalling applying the finish of a 20-goal striker.
As a long-term strategy, playing Fellaini as a regista won’t wash with the fans Mourinho now has firmly on side. The plan won’t work when the onus is on United to break teams down, and Fellaini is unlikely to have similar joy chasing down the opposition at Anfield, the Etihad or White Hart Lane. But when it is required as it has been in the last two matches, he performs a function, a simple task yet one few others in Mourinho’s squad are trusted with.
That confidence cannot be underestimated. Through United’s struggles, it is the men Mourinho trusts most who have stepped up, most notably Fellaini, Smalling, David De Gea and Romelu Lukaku – a spine with the necessary backbone for the job. There are too many players in his squad Mourinho knows he cannot rely on. Limited though he may be, Fellaini will never be one of them.