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Marouane Fellaini’s MCL strain will undoubtedly keep the Belgian midfielder out of Saturday’s clash with Liverpool at Anfield.
With the midfielder having already been struggling for fitness heading into the international break, it is likely Jose Mourinho will feel somewhat frustrated that Roberto Martinez elected to use Fellaini; with the Belgian side already qualified for the 2018 World Cup in Russia.
This latest injury, coupled with Paul Pogba’s continued absence with a hamstring issue, leaves Mourinho in a difficult spot heading into what is Manchester United’s most important match of the season.
First acid test
Aside from being a match against their fiercest rivals, Saturday’s trip to Anfield is also the first acid test of United’s title credentials this season.
It is the first in a run of difficult matches throughout October and November that will illustrate whether or not it will be a close battle between the two Manchester clubs for the title.
Manchester City have shown their mettle by going to Stamford Bridge and winning convincingly, Manchester United now have to go to Liverpool and do the same.
Doing so will be made all the more difficult by Fellaini’s absence. Whilst the former Everton midfielder’s recent form has been fantastic anyway, he is usually a good option to use in away matches against Liverpool regardless, especially since Jurgen Klopp’s arrival.
He will be a monumental miss for the Portuguese coach.
Effective against the likes of Liverpool
Of the three trips Manchester United have made to Anfield in all competitions since the former Borussia Dortmund coach’s arrival, Fellaini has started in every single one. There is a reason for this.
Liverpool are an incredibly effective pressing team, their quick forwards can really put an opposing defence under pressure, Roberto Firmino, Sadio Mane and the newly added Mohamed Salah are all impressive ball-hounds.
Jose Mourinho is an astute tactician, irrespective of whether you find his methods dull or unattractive. The use of Fellaini at Anfield, especially since the Portuguese coach’s arrival, has been to totally negate the Liverpool press.
A team can’t be pressed if they refuse to hold onto the ball in their own defensive zones, if a team fires the ball up towards the middle of the pitch or even further forward, their defenders will not be at risk of being challenged and surrendering possession in a high-risk area of the pitch.
It is worth remembering that before Mane’s red-card, Liverpool could have been 3-0 up against Manchester City utilising this press.
Now an aerial focused style is absolutely useless if there is nobody to bring the ball under control or at the very least win the aerial challenges. There is nobody better in the Premier League than Marouane Fellaini at this particular skill.
He can control almost any lofted pass on his chest whilst his overall build makes him incredibly difficult to beat in a duel without conceding a free-kick.
It was a game-plan utilised by Manchester United against Ajax in the Europa League final, it completely took the sting out of the Dutch side, they couldn’t press because the ball was never on the floor in United’s own half.
Fellaini positioned himself just ahead of midfield and quite honestly bullied Hakim Ziyech, Davy Klaassen and Lasse Schone.
A key part of Mourinho’s patient game-plan
Given the similarities in style between Klopp’s Liverpool and Peter Bosz’s Ajax side of 2017, it is incredibly likely that Mourinho would have set up in the same way on Saturday, especially when he didn’t have Pogba available either.
One of the former Chelsea’s coach’s biggest strengths is knowing the limitations of his own team, last year United didn’t have a hope of winning at Anfield so they arrived with a determination not to lose.
This season United are the superior team, by a distance, however they cannot afford to try and take Liverpool on in a wanton manner. Klopp’s front three are capable of blowing any defence away, United have to be patient and take full advantage of Liverpool’s rickety defence when the chances inevitably come.
Without Fellaini, a key part of the aforementioned patient game-plan is gone, United’s only other midfield choices are Nemanja Matic, Ander Herrera, Michael Carrick and Scott McTominay. Unusually, it is 20-year-old McTominay that would be the best like-for-like replacement for Fellaini in this regard.
Few Manchester United supporters could ever have envisaged a time when losing Fellaini to injury would threaten to derail the team, yet that is how crucial he has been this season.
Jose Mourinho was already bristling about the international break before it began, he will be even more infuriated now.
He has to produce a game-plan capable of getting a positive result at Anfield; he now has to do this without one of his most reliable midfielders. For Manchester United, their style of play on Saturday may well have changed dramatically as a result.
Written by Chris Winterburn
Follow Chris on Twitter @cmwinterburn
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