Jack: Fellaini unites Red Devils in Champions League debut

Kristian Jack
9/17/2013 6:39:08 PM
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With less than 90 seconds to go in the first half, debutant Marouane Fellaini attempted a cheeky pass towards the left wing intended for the charging Patrice Evra. The ball, however, was under hit and Bayer Leverkusen started a quick counter attack from their own half.

It was the exact situation that their manager Sami Hyypia would have drawn up, an opportunity on a transition to open up United, but seconds after the giveaway, Fellaini stepped into Sidney Sam and immediately won the ball back, fairly, and with so much force that the German fell to the ground.

Thirteen seconds later, Shinji Kagawa's effort on goal deflected wide for a corner, after Manchester United, not their opponents, triggered a counter attack immediately in a transition, thanks to the strength and positioning of Fellaini.

Welcome to the Champions League, where midfield superiority and clinical transitions are vital to success.

Welcome also to the Champions League group stage, Fellaini and his manager David Moyes, who both came away from Manchester United's 4-2 win over Bayer Leverkusen on Tuesday night with top marks.

Moyes had spent much of Monday's press conference deflecting questions about his lack of experience at this level and, when he finished talking, he went about setting up a team he felt were built to play at the highest level of club football.

Chris Smalling, for Fabio at right back, Fellaini, for Anderson in midfield, and Kagawa, for Ashley Young on the left, were the three changes from Saturday's win against Crystal Palace and all three made a significant difference to United's identity.

Smalling is a very good defender in a 1x1 situation and with Antonio Valencia playing ahead of him, with a flexible, less rigid, front three, there was little need for him to get forward often. In big games he should play this role more for both club and country.

Kagawa was deployed on the left of midfield but did not spend the match hogging the touchline. His first start of the season lasted 70 minutes and it was clear United had missed his brain in the first month of the campaign. His tactical understanding meant he could interchange with Wayne Rooney and Robin van Persie in attack, as both forwards enjoy moving to the flanks, while dropping deep to help on the left defensively when not in possession.

His performance was influenced in part by Fellaini, as were many of the Manchester United players. Fellaini's positioning as the left sided central midfielder means he was often the central figure in a defensive trio, involving Evra and Kagawa, in closing down any threats down the right. Sam and Emre Can, two of Leverkusen's brightest young players, for the majority of the match were very ineffective on the right flank.

Fellaini's presence inside Manchester United's midfield is sure to make Evra and Kagawa better, as he did with Steven Pienaar and Leighton Baines at Everton (even though he played higher up the pitch more at Goodison, he still dropped in to cover on the left a lot). Fellaini's style, which sees him win more balls than a Tom Cleverley for example, needs partnerships so he can ignite team's transitions and find key outlets, and the trio combined very well considering it was their first game together.

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The new partnerships will take time to grow and it was no surprise that the visitors' first goal of the game came when Evra was up field and Fellaini had to step in at left back to replace him. This allowed Sam to sprint deep into United's final third, in space usually occupied by the Belgian, before crossing a ball in that came out to Simon Rolfes to power home an equalizer.

By playing Fellaini on the left, the excellent Michael Carrick is able to play on the right centrally, and six minutes after allowing the 1-1 goal, United took the lead for good when the Englishman sprayed a trademark ball out wide for Valencia to run on to, and then cross into the box for Van Persie to volley home. It was a goal that showed United's style, while evolving under Moyes, remains very direct, with width, which is how they looked so often under Sir Alex Ferguson.

Two goals would follow that came from fast breaks inside their own half, again following the theme of quick counter attacks, and the goals will delight Moyes who spoke on Saturday about the need for his team to ensure their domination is reflected in the score.

The big lead allowed Moyes to bring Fellaini off to a standing ovation. His passing alongside his partner Carrick was outstanding, as the central midfielders were the only two players to complete more than 50 passes. Not only does their relationship take the pressure off Carrick to be the main guardian of the gates for Nemanja Vidic and Rio Ferdinand, it also allows him to pick his moments to move forward and showcase his ability to make a key pass (he was 17 of 24 with passes in the final third).

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However, it was Fellaini's role without the ball that United desperately needed, an ability to win key aerial battles (which he did four times), make successful clearances, interceptions and, above else, ball recoveries to help ignite those transitions:

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Moyes spoke Monday about what he felt he needed to do to win Champions League games, despite not managing in them once the group stage had started. Midfield dominance, transitions and an old pal from his Everton days means so far so good for United's new gaffer.

Marouane Fellaini (Photo: Michael Regan/Getty Images)


(Photo: Michael Regan/Getty Images)
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