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How Baseball Explains Marouane Fellaini

Sunday 1st July 2018

If you’ve ever let an uncle down on his luck stay in your spare room, only to discover that he has an aversion to bathwater, talks with his mouth full, belches, farts, scratches, and keeps promising to leave before finding new excuses to stay, you understand how many Manchester United fans feel about Marouane Fellaini. I can’t speak to the Belgian chia pet’s eating and grooming habits, but a quick Twitter search using his name will reveal sentiments like “held the club to ransom” and “simply not a United player.” He is not popular.

Fellaini was David Moyes’ marquee signing in his only summer as United manager, coming over from Everton for what fans at the time felt was a shocking £27 million. Since he arrived, a large bloc of Red Devils supporters has prayed for his departure. When he came on late in an early December game against Everton in Jose Mourinho’s first season, only to gift the Toffees a penalty with a ridiculous challenge on Idrissa Gueye, I temporarily joined their ranks.

Fellaini had needlessly stuck out his leg with the Senegalese moving away from goal. The resultant spot-kick levelled the match, consigning United to their fifth straight draw and sixth and seventh points dropped in the final ten minutes of games in the season’s first half. I was furious, first and foremost because I was giving Mourinho a chance against my better judgment and second because United couldn’t finish games.

As the season played out, I calmed down. Fellaini made amends for his error with several strong performances and the club, which as a whole had been responsible for the mediocre run, came together to win the Europa League even without top scorer Zlatan Ibrahimovic. I came to appreciate the Belgian for who he was: a tall, awkward, floppy-haired, sharp-elbowed player who, when called upon, could and, much more often than not, did a job. Although others found creative ways to express their disdain for him, he became in my mind one of the few good judgments Mourinho has made as Old Trafford boss.

Haters are wondering why Mourinho begged and pleaded with both the player and board to keep him at the club. When Ed Woodward played hardball early in negotiations, they were thrilled. When rumours connecting Fellaini to Galatasaray, Milan, Paris Saint-Germain and especially Arsenal all seemed to be possible, if not imminent, they were ecstatic. Now, they are consulting their physicians regarding the best medication to treat manic depression.

They’re also wondering how a squad player rates £100,000/week. When you consider Alexis Sanchez is rumoured to be on something near a half-million every seven days, it’s not out of line. It makes even more sense when you consider the job Fellaini is asked to perform.

Mourinho relies on the 30-year-old to close shop. It is his primary responsibility to come into matches late and make sure any crosses into the United 18 do not find their way to opponents. In other words, he is a closer.

Universally, the term is associated with a pitchman who knows how to get the sale. In the United States, it’s also associated with the type of pitcher who comes into a baseball game in the ninth inning to preserve a win.

Like Fellaini, hurlers such as Aroldis Chapman, Craig Kimbrel and Wade Davis trot to the mound after most of the heavy lifting has been done. It’s their job to get the last two or three outs from the 27 needed to win. In other words, get the team over the line.

All closers do is throw a few pitches, get a few outs. Yet the elite closer commands a top salary in major league baseball. Fans understand how important it is to get those final outs. When your bullpen ace blows a save, and it happens to the best, the experience is as unexpected and traumatic as the penalty Fellaini surrendered in that game against the Merseysiders. Even so, if their club can sign a Chapman or Kimbrel, they’re not going to quibble over the money. As long as he throws strikes, all is right with the world.

Signing Fellaini is an even better deal than landing a major league closer. Those guys are one-dimensional. They’ll never step to the plate to hit a walk-off home run, whereas the Belgian is just as valuable on the other side of the ball. Many are the times he has risen to meet a cross, or take one down with his chest, to score a decisive goal in the attacking end.

Every squad needs a player who can come off the bench to make a difference. When he can play in either box, line up as a holding mid or striker and rotate into the starting lineup when there is an injury or the fixtures come hard and fast, such a player has worth. So, why do United fans dislike Fellaini?

Simply put, they’re elitist. They want the prettiest, most technically gifted stars. They’ll crow all day long about Alexis Sanchez’s industrious nature, but they’d have no respect for him if he couldn’t create and finish with style. You can show them the numbers that demonstrate the difference with Fellaini in the lineup. They won’t care.

For his part, Fellaini doesn’t care either. If he did, he would never have agreed to a new contract. He would have sought a club where he would be welcome. In fact, he’d have probably chosen the Gunners just for the opportunity to have his revenge on his United detractors. There are at least three greater priorities than fans when it comes to the Belgian choosing a club:

  1. The chance to win trophies.
  2. Salary.
  3. Playing time.

Haters would probably say I have his priorities reversed with the first two. As if it mattered.

The point here is Fellaini wanted all three if he could have them. Apparently, he couldn’t. Galatasaray may have been willing to give him the trifecta, but the rumours surrounding him joining the Lions had less to do with confirmed negotiations and more with a visit to Istanbul during the holidays and a GQ photo shoot in which tying his hair into Mickey Mouse ears was overshadowed by the crimson and gold trim on the top he wore.

Milan was promising. The new Chinese owners had spent £200 million on players for the 2017/18 season and Gennaro Gattuso is an even more hard-nosed manager than Jose Mourinho. Still, the Rossoneri weren’t in the Serie A title picture in the same manner United is in the Premier League even before UEFA Financial Fair Play sanctions were levied on the Italian club.

Paris Saint-Germain certainly win titles, at least domestically, and they have money to burn. But it’s unlikely Fellaini would have been first-choice over Adrien Rabiot. More to the point, Thomas Tuchel inherited two 30-something midfielders in Thiago Motta and Lassana Diarra. Why would he want a third?

At Arsenal, Fellaini wasn’t likely to start either. Nor could he be certain regarding new boss Unai Emery’s title credentials. The Spaniard only seemed able to win in Europe when on a shoestring budget. It was part of his appeal to the Arsenal board, who would have been just as reluctant as United fans to pay the Belgian six figures in weekly wages.

For him, United is the best fit. He is well paid. The team is a Premier League title contender. The manager is a two-time Champions League winner who absolutely adores him. The only hangup is he won’t play regularly. If he wasn’t going to do better than two out of three on his wishlist, it was better to stay with the Red Devils he knew than join the ones he didn’t.

The entire situation illustrates exactly how football works. The player is rolling in dough, the manager has the closer he wanted and fans who think it should be otherwise have absolutely no influence in the matter.

Martin Palazzotto

The former editor of World Football Columns, Martin authored the short story collection strange bOUnce. He appeared in several other blogs which no longer exist. Old, he likes to bring out defunct. If outdated sport and pop-cultural references intrude on his meanderings for It's Round and It's White, don't be alarmed. He's harmless.

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