Marouane Fellaini is Manchester United’s big, awkward, physical key against Liverpool
At least part of the art of tactics, from an attacking point of view, is getting your players into the crevices of the opponent’s system.
That is why Philippe Coutinho and Adam Lallana have been so successful for Liverpool since Brendan Rodgers switched to a 3-4-2-1, and it also partly explains why Marouane Fellaini has become such a surprisingly effective figure for Manchester United during the past few weeks.
Coutinho and Lallana exist in a netherworld between an opponent’s holding midfielders and full-backs, everybody’s responsibility and nobody’s.
With Fellaini, the issue is not just positioning but also the unusual set of attributes he brings to that position. United’s shape in the 3-0 win over Tottenham Hotspur last week, arguably their best performance of the season, was a 4-2-3-1/4-3-3 hybrid.
There was a central triangle of midfielders, with Michael Carrick at the base, Ander Herrera slightly advanced and to his right and Fellaini further advanced to the left, breaking forward whenever possible to function almost as a second striker just off Wayne Rooney.
That is awkward to defend against. In the build-up to the opening goal against Tottenham, for instance, Fellaini pulled into a position between the right-back Kyle Walker and the right-sided centre-back, Eric Dier, and about 10 yards in front of them.
Initially Ryan Mason picked him up, but as Michael Carrick strode through a challenge, he was drawn to the ball. Dier did not get across quickly enough to cover and Fellaini burst through the resulting gap to score. Spurs checked his threat in the second half by using Nabil Bentaleb almost as a man-marker, but by then it was already too late.
But it is not that unusual to have a player bursting forward from a central midfield three. What makes Fellaini so difficult to combat is the nature of the threat he poses.
He is big, awkward and physical, but what often looked like clumsiness when he played deep last season has been repurposed by Louis van Gaal as a physical attacking threat.
Fellaini has become effectively a deep-lying target-man, a clanking giant who is not merely good in the air, but unlike a traditional target-man is often moving at pace when crosses arrive in his orbit. It is true there are times this season when United have overused the long diagonal aimed at Fellaini, but at the same time it cannot be denied that in moderation the tactic can spread chaos.
That is of particular concern for Liverpool. Their 3-4-2-1 shape means they cannot, as Spurs eventually did, depute a holding midfielder to track Fellaini. The additional centre-back means it should be easier to pick him up when he makes a run beyond the midfield line than Dier found it,
However, the difficulty is that the right-sided of the three, Emre Can, the player who would naturally find himself pitted against Fellaini breaking from the left-centre of United’s midfield, is probably their least comfortable in the air.
Fellaini has been involved in 8.9 aerial duels per game this season, winning 5.3 of them – 59.6 per cent. Can has been involved in just 2.7. He has won 1.6, 59.3 per cent. In that regard they match up well, but you would expect defenders to win more than they lose, and the key is really how few aerial battles he has contested.
For all Can’s qualities, it simply is not his strength, and that means Fellaini could again be a vital presence.
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Published: March 21, 2015 04:00 AM