Marouane Fellaini's tactical pleasures hidden at Manchester United for now

Maybe in time manager David Moyes will give the former Everton midfielder the licence to break away from the meek and muted figure he has become in his early Old Trafford career

OK, I think it is time. Things are ticking over. Alex Ferguson already feels like something you might cast off – unwillingly at first but in time perhaps with a quiet sense of giddy relief, like a discarded winter coat, or a cancelled dental appointment, or four decades of totalitarian Soviet oppression. Either way it feels like the right moment to move on to other matters. It has so far been one of the more muted Manchester United sub-plots but with Arsenal's revolving soft-shoed midfield gnomes next up at Old Trafford this is perhaps a moment of broader footballing interest.

Marouane Fellaini may not play much on Sunday and if he does he will probably do so with the familiar, slightly stilted air of a dutifully tethered canal boat horse. But either way it is time. We need to talk about Marouane.

With a first red card now safely in the bank after the midweek trip to Real Sociedad, it is hard to think of many ways in which Fellaini's United career could have gone much worse than it has to date. He could, perhaps, have jostled Bobby Charlton at a club function or accidentally burned down the stadium. But times have still been disproportionately tough for a player who will never be allowed to be simply in transition at United, tolerated as just another central midfield destructor-hulk with a mildly inflated price tag; but who is instead destined to stand as a barometer, mascot and general totem of early Moyes-ism. Fellaini matters.

He is, by a combination of autumnal mishaps, the chosen (by default) one. Like the ravens in the Tower of London his fortunes at Old Trafford seem bound up with a broader sense of institutional wellbeing. He needs to be allowed to succeed. But how exactly?

It is worth saying at this point that I am a huge fan of Fellaini, a player with a rare combination of physical and technical gifts who has so far appeared only in muted form at United. In fact, in a certain light Fellaini's career trajectory seems to present a footballing variation on the Peter Principle, the notion that workers within a hierarchy will rise on the strength of their skills, right up to the exact point those skills are no longer any use to them. With Fellaini this is not so much to do with the extent of his gifts as their tone and texture.

He can do a good, half-speed job as an all-round defensive midfielder but let's face it, he has one truly outstanding skill. Shuffle him upfield into that bespoke withdrawn aerial target-man role and Fellaini becomes a Xavi of the upper body, a player with a truly spectacular line in Velcro-Touch full-torso link-up play, perhaps even the best chester of a ball currently playing in world football.

This is not a skill to be taken lightly. Fellaini's chest doesn't simply control the ball, it caresses it, coddles it, mutters lovingly in its ear, breathes up its nose and makes it his friend for life.

Some players have a picture in their head when they receive the ball. Fellaini has a picture in his chest, his shoulder, the top of his head and while there are plenty who can do the link-pass-run job just as well, no central midfielder can dominate the aerial flow of a match quite like the Lion of Liège.

Except, of course, Fellaini is not allowed to do this any more. Having caught the eye this way, he is now at a club where he is, frankly, never going to play like that again. It is not just that Wayne Rooney and Shinji Kagawa are ahead of him in the No10 queue. It is more that the Fellaini style, the clanking forward siege tower role, is never going to wash as anything other than a last-ditch variation. With good reason too. The Champions League will not be won by the team with the most effective false-Crouch inverted midfield hoof-magnet. United would be "passed dry" by any semi-competent Iberian midfield playing this way.

For all that, there can be no doubt the repression of his inner iron giant has helped make Fellaini such a meek and muted figure in his early United career.

So far he has provided no Premier League assists, no goals and just a paltry – Marouane? Really? – five fouls. This is a man who last year scored eight goals in his first 17 matches and who over the season won more aerial challenges than all 11 Manchester United midfielders combined.

Fellaini has a diligent turn as a defensive midfielderbut it is by no means the real point of him. Instead we have now a dilute, pre-watershed Fellaini, a player whose United career has so far felt a bit like sitting through the compete works of Jean-Claude Van Damme with all the kung fu kicks and chopped windpipes edited out, only leaving in the dialogue and the shots of him driving his jeep around or staring moodily out of the window, while a soft metal power ballad yowls away in the background. All very well but what's happened to all the good bits?

This is not to suggest Fellaini is destined to fail at United. He has already survived one major transition in his career, making a success of his time at Everton after a sticky start. In fact, those more extreme physical qualities, refined during his time in English football, are evidence in themselves of a willingness to learn. Modern football is a fluid, polyvalent, category-averse affair. Fellaini has adapted before. He can surely do it again.

And really to a degree he is a victim of failures higher up. He should not have cost so much. He should have come backed up by at least one more mobile, more obviously stellar new midfielder. Arsenal on Sunday might not be the time – United have won these games by sitting deep and breaking fast – but perhaps in time David Moyes will even give him licence to play now and then a bit like Marouane Fellaini, a footballer who it has been easy to miss a little in the last few months, part-time king of the chest-grab, whose greatest talent must remain for now a forbidden tactical pleasure.

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