Opinion remains divided over Marouane Fellaini’s ability to thrive at Manchester United. Was he overpriced? Does he really have what it takes to be part of a team challenging for the title? Will he ever get a grown-up haircut?
What is not in doubt, however, is that fact that the Belgian showed some improvement in his team's 2-0 win over Crystal Palace at the weekend.
His performance was definitely in the 'good' rather than 'great' category - but all improvements have to start somewhere, and he'll surely have gained confidence that will only be further bolstered should he do well again in Champions League action against Olympiakos on Tuesday night.
Our friends at Squawka.com take a look at his showing this weekend and ask whether this could mark the beginning of his personal renaissance.
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The match against Palace was Fellaini's first league start since December 4, with the former Everton talisman coming back from injury to take up a familiar role in David Moyes's midfield, prowling up-and-down the pitch alongside the more static Michael Carrick.
This in turn created space for Wayne Rooney and Juan Mata to drop back as Fellaini headed further up field, encouraging far more movement between the lines of the team's rather rigid set-up than has been witnessed of late.
During his most effective attacking displays with Everton, the Belgian was always a destructive player, bundling his markers over to force his way into dangerous positions. He can best be described as a supreme irritant or wrecking ball, adept at unsettling opponents as much with the awkward and irregular dimensions of his physical presence as his skill.
He was unable to bring these abilities to bear to create or score a goal against Palace, but in his role as a rangy, box-to-box midfielder he did disrupt the plans of Tony Pulis's side on numerous occasions further back, completing seven out of seven attempted clearances as well as making four interceptions.
The Belgian also made three successful tackles out of three attempts, and won three out of nine headed duels.
Compare those stats to Carrick, who took on a far less involved role at Selhurst Park while his team-mate got stuck into the dirty jobs and running work next to him in midfield.
The two players' heat maps demonstrate this well:
Carrick may have covered less of the pitch, but he completed an impressive 130 passes, making just two interceptions, two clearances, a headed duel and one successful tackle from three attempts.
The heat maps show the Belgian's touches throughout his 90 minute performance. His patchy array of markings are spread out across the extent of the playing surface compared to the more orderly blob displaying Carrick's limited wandering.
While United's deeper-lying playmaker looked to keep himself open and available for his team-mates in a fairly regular position, Fellaini galloped about making a nuisance of himself in almost every sector of the pitch.
Not that Fellaini was purely a ball-winner: he completed 92% of his 71 passes, with this graphic showing that the only failures were a long ball, and four attempts at killer final passes through the Palace back four:
Fellaini also succeeded with two out of two take-ons (Carrick did not try any), both of which were around the half-way line. That is the sign of a player grappling with opponents before taking advantage of his success in individual duels, to drive forwards with the ball. In other words, a player trying to force the initiative for his team.
Therein lies the key to getting the best out of Fellaini. He is at his best when in a specialised, roaming role which will make the most of his attributes: his strength, aggression and directness.
Not only is that the way for United to get value out of his £27.5 million summer transfer fee, but it may also help to give United the fluidity they've often been lacking under Moyes.
The introduction of Mata and the deep roaming tendencies of Rooney allowed the Belgian to focus on what he does best: disrupting opponents, not just becoming an overworked all-rounder in the centre of the park. And it shows that his physical presence, pushing up from midfield, may become a regular and vital feature of United's play.
Fellaini offers an obvious, robust contrast to the more technical and creative players he now finds himself surrounded by, but that should be something to be celebrated rather than derided - especially at moments where a battering ram may be more useful than an intricate but light touch.
Strangely enough, watching Fellaini bound forwards while Mata and co dropped back at Selhurst Park, it actually looked as though Carrick has more to do than Fellaini to prove his worth. With rumours of a move for Ilkay Gundogan, Toni Kroos or a similar player of that ilk continuing to dominate the transfer gossip columns, the England international may soon find himself relegated to a squad role should a more dynamic, deeper-lying creative presence arrive at Old Trafford.
As for Fellaini? He still has a long way to go before he can be classed as a solution rather than an interesting piece trying in vain to fit in to the wrong puzzle. But he should be pleased with his display against Palace, and United fans can hope that the midfielder and his manager use it as a platform to start building a successful, long-term career at Old Trafford.
- Sports & Recreation
- Marouane Fellaini
- Manchester United
- Michael Carrick