MANCHESTER, England — It did not take long for the jokes to start about Marouane Fellaini following the Belgian midfielder’s red card during Manchester United’s 0-0 draw against Manchester City at the Etihad.
Many were from those of a red persuasion, with some suggesting they “would have taken a point and no Fellaini for the next three games had it been offered before kick-off.” It’s harsh, perhaps, but such was the stupidity of Fellaini’s 84th minute head-butt on City forward Sergio Aguero that it is understandable how some United supporters are happier to see the former Everton player as far away from a red shirt as possible.
Back in December, Fellaini became the target of hostility from a section of United supporters after giving away an 89th minute penalty against Everton at Goodison Park following a clumsy foul on Idrissa Gueye, an act that former United captain Gary Neville described as “idiotic.” Leon Osman, who played alongside Fellaini at Everton, went one further by saying “he was always like that for us. He was like that in training; if you came up against him, he was likely to stand on your toes or give you a dead leg.
“When he played for us, you wanted him as far away from our box as possible.”
Fellaini is a unique threat because of his height and awkward style of play, but at times, he can be as much a danger to his own team as the opposition.
Against City, Fellaini’s dismissal ultimately did not cost United. Jose Mourinho’s ultra-defensive tactics set his team up for a draw even before Fellaini departed and left his side one man short for the final six minutes, plus six minutes of stoppage time. But while there was no price to pay on Thursday night, the potential absence of Fellaini for the next three Premier League games — he might yet be banned for longer, due to his failure to leave the pitch immediately — against Swansea, Arsenal and Tottenham will hurt Mourinho and United.
The 29-year-old Belgium international has made 42 appearances for United this season, scoring three goals, and he has become a key figure for Mourinho. He does not start every game, but Fellaini’s value to Mourinho is his ability to become United’s Plan B. Nobody else in the top six has a player quite like Fellaini, somebody who can change a team’s approach in an instant, and while he can be infuriating for the purists, he is unquestionably effective.
Last Thursday, in the Europa League quarterfinal against Anderlecht, it was a long ball to Fellaini that led to Marcus Rashford’s extra-time winner, with the midfielder heading the ball into the young striker’s path for him to score.
There have been other occasions this season when Fellaini has become a nuisance the opposition cannot handle, but after his moment of madness against City, United will be denied their Plan B in their next three games. He will be missed against Arsenal because he would have unsettled Arsene Wenger’s shaky back four, while his presence would have been crucial against Mauricio Pochettino’s imposing Spurs team at White Hart Lane.
So while it might be a case of good riddance in the minds of many United supporters over the next three games, Fellaini’s suspension could not have come at a worse time. Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s cruciate ligament injury means he will miss the rest of the season and beyond, so United have no aerial threat in the coming weeks.
Mourinho, who has not been shy when it comes to criticising his players this season, steered clear of condemning Fellaini, however, pointing instead to Aguero’s physical condition after the game.
“I have just three details,” Mourinho said. “Marouane says that it’s a red card because it’s Marouane. Martin Atkinson [the referee] told me that in his opinion it’s a red card, but I saw Aguero in the tunnel with no broken nose, no broken head and his face is nice as always, so I’m not so sure.
“If Sergio doesn’t go to the floor, for sure it’s not a red card. But if Marouane gave him chance to do that …”
United and City, both showing the signs of physical and mental fatigue, must now plough on in pursuit of the top-four finish that will guarantee Champions League football next season.
City had the best chances in this game, hitting the post through Aguero and seeing Nicolas Otamendi head narrowly over the crossbar; but they were unable to kill United off, with substitute Gabriel Jesus having a stoppage time header ruled out for offside.
Meanwhile, United held on to extend their unbeaten league run to 24 games; but if they are to close the two-point gap on third-place Liverpool, they will likely have to win against Arsenal or Spurs, and they are running out of players.
“We lost two more players today,” Mourinho said. “Fellaini and Fosu-Mensah, who had an important injury in the last action of the game. I don’t think we recover any of the other players, but we go for it. The guys have an amazing spirit, and we go again Sunday.”
Guardiola, whose team travel to Middlesbrough on Sunday, admitted City should have won the game.
“We created enough chances to win, and they had two in 90 minutes,” he said. “We also cannot forget they are 23, 24 games without defeat, so it is not easy to play against United.
“But we did absolutely everything to win, and when that happens, no regrets.”
The regrets will belong to Fellaini. He almost cost his team the game, but while he got away with it on the night, the full cost of his stupidity might not become clear until the next three fixtures are played out.
Mark Ogden is a senior football writer for ESPN FC. Follow him @MarkOgden_