50 years ago today, George Best made his debut for Manchester United and even those who don’t have United rushing through their veins respectfully acknowledge the brilliance of the late Northern Irishman and the impact he had not just on United, but on football as a whole throughout a career cut short by excesses.
Old Trafford is set to witness a different kind of debut tomorrow, one whose potential impact on the club has been considerably understated so far.
Obviously, Marouane Fellaini is a world away from being anywhere near to George Best – frankly, with a few exceptions, who isn’t? – and he also doesn’t embody the flair and panache many Reds were desperate for and yet the Belgian could prove to be an extremely important addition to the squad and one which could change – albeit not drastically – the way United go about their business.
David Moyes undoubtedly hopes his reunion with the former Everton man will bear its fruits.
With the season barely three games old, one can’t read into much into United’s performances, nor is it time to press the panic button as yet, for Reds are used to their club’s notorious slow starts.
However, over the next couple of games, we should begin to have clearer picture of what is likely to appear on the white canvas David Moyes inherited from Sir Alex Ferguson. Which is the real United? The one that clinically disposed of Swansea, the cautious one that negotiated a turgid 0-0 draw against Jose Mourinho’s troops or the flat and uninspiring version that succumbed to a 1-0 defeat at Anfield?
David Moyes’ cautious approach to the first games of the season was increasingly undermined by United’s terminally ill midfield in which even the mercurial Michael Carrick suffered at Anfield, surrounded by the abysmal Ashley Young and by that Tom Cleverley who has regressed so much into his shell that one has to wonder if he won’t become another casualty of the black hole that is United’s engine room.
Wilfried Zaha and Shinji Kagawa shone in pre-season but have so far been sacrificed on the altar of cautiousness by David Moyes, starving United of a much needed creative spark in the final third of the pitch, where only Robin Van Persie, Danny Welbeck and the injured Wayne Rooney appear sufficiently equipped to unlock defences.
Moyes’ reluctance to deploy attack-minded midfielders adds even more importance to Fellaini’s debut, for it’ll be fascinating to see whether the former Everton man is deployed in a deep-lying role alongside Michael Carrick thus, at least theoretically, paving the way for the introduction of a more attacking player to support Robin Van Persie, or whether Fellaini would occupy the same role he did at Everton, meaning that Ryan Giggs or Tom Cleverley are likely to partner Carrick.
With fans getting increasingly frustrated by Kagawa’s peripheral role, were David Moyes to deploy Fellaini in an advanced role, expect to see many uttering the words “boring”, “football” and “Everton” in an extremely derogatory way come Saturday afternoon.
However, despite his many detractors, Fellaini is likely to be an upgrade on United’s current midfield. The Belgian has completed 89.1% of his passes to Cleverley’s 87.5% but, crucially, he has averaged four more passes per game than the England international, while proving to be a much bigger threat in the final third of the pitch, having attempted 1.7 shots per game compared to Cleverley’s 0.7.
Should Moyes opt to play Fellaini in an attacking midfield role, those numbers could go some way in justifying his decision, but the Belgian is likely to offer a whole new dimension to United’s midfield even in a deeper role, considering that last season he won more aerial duels by himself (151) than the 11 players that appeared in midfield for United combined (94).
United might have failed to purchase the attacking midfielder they desperately craved, but the prospect of Danny Welbeck, Shinji Kagawa and Wayne Rooney – Nani or Zaha, are valid alternatives – supporting Robin Van Persie, with Fellaini and Carrick sitting in front of the back four isn’t a prospect to be looked upon with disdain.
Three games into his United career, David Moyes must move towards a less cautious approach. Ironically, a defensive midfielder could prove crucial for him in doing so.
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