Marouane Fellaini in the ascendancy at Man United and should be kept on
As the uncertainty continues over Marouane Fellaini's future at Old Trafford, the Belgian can reflect that, should he leave Manchester United this summer, he can do so with his head held high.
That is a remarkable turnaround in his fortunes and bears witness to his considerable resilience. In many ways, Fellaini has been an unwitting symbol of much of United's dysfunction since the departure of Sir Alex Ferguson in 2013. The player has not made too much public comment on the criticism he has received, but it would take an unusually tough soul to remain unaffected by it all.
Even the manner of Fellaini's recruitment was utterly chaotic and it was a bad omen for this new stage of his career. He was signed for £27.5 million from Everton by David Moyes, a man who looked uncomfortable in his new post from the very day he was appointed, just before the transfer deadline and, though no fault of his own, the underwhelming acquisition attracted the ire of many supporters.
The team's midfield had long sustained years of under-investment, with players like Paul Scholes never adequately replaced, and there was hope that someone like Thiago Alcantara or Toni Kroos might be secured as his long-term replacement.
Instead Fellaini arrived, with the immediate impression being formed that he was supposed to be the team's playmaker. That wasn't ever going to be the case, but Fellaini carried the can for this discontent. It didn't help, either, that he had been bought after his release clause had expired, meaning that United ended up paying £4 million more than they had intended to.
All in all, it spoke to the new management team's failure to close high-calibre deals, and paved the way for one of the least successful Premier League title defences in recent memory.
That is not to say that all criticisms of Fellaini's performances were unwarranted. It was long known that he was not a footballer who put a great deal of pressure on the ball, so when paired with Michael Carrick there was a predictable lack of intensity in midfield. Yet his passing was often very conservative, which limited United's ability to play their trademark counterattacks.
It is perhaps a trait of central midfielders low on confidence -- shared that difficult season by Tom Cleverley -- to play the ball continually sideways, instead of looking for the prompt and precise pass into the final third. Old Trafford was an intimidating place to play at that point, and when measured against his performances for Jose Mourinho it is fair to say that, under Moyes, Fellaini froze.
What made this state of affairs stranger is that Moyes knew Fellaini's game better than the two subsequent United managers -- Louis van Gaal and Mourinho -- who would go on to get much more out of him.
Fellaini's effectiveness against the leading Premier League teams was one of the enduring curiosities of Van Gaal's reign.
Paradoxically, though Fellaini is not an elegant footballer by any stretch of the imagination, United have played some of their most sublime football of recent years with him in the team. Witness his pivotal role, for example, when United won 2-1 at Anfield with two goals from Juan Mata; or in his team's thrilling 4-2 derby win over Manchester City -- a match which sadly turned out to be the falsest of dawns for Van Gaal.
Under Mourinho, it is credit to both player and coach that Fellaini's inclusion is far more often a cause for comfort than concern.
Fellaini has been helped by Mourinho's use of a three-man midfield, as well as the extraordinary passing range of Paul Pogba -- who, with his accurate delivery over 40 yards and more, can make full use of Fellaini's chest control, one area in which he is indisputably world-class.
The Belgian has also become much more confident in possession, whether running with the ball or passing it, and was trusted in the most important game of Mourinho's Old Trafford tenure to date: the 2017 Europa League final victory over Ajax, which secured United's qualification for the UEFA Champions League.
Fellaini has now made 148 appearances for United in five seasons, scoring 19 goals -- a scoring return that is slightly lower than one would expect given his aerial ability, but a total of matches which shows that he has been an integral part of this stage of the club's history.
Though his career at Old Trafford has seen more downs than ups, if he were to leave in the next six months then it would be from a position of ascendancy. He has recovered from his tough start at the club, emerging with greater credit than, say, Henrikh Mkhitaryan or Shinji Kagawa. And, in doing so, he has shown that trait perhaps most prized by United supporters: courage when it matters most.
Musa Okwonga is one of ESPN FC's Manchester United bloggers. Follow on Twitter: @Okwonga.