A couple of years ago, after a series of all-action displays, David Moyes labelled Marouane Fellaini as the best midfielder in the Premier League. At the time, this controversial notion was taken with a pinch of salt, barely considered at all seriously by those in and around football. It was just viewed as being one of those emotional, radical lines, delivered too soon after the final whistle, by a manager who was obviously still raw from combat. However it is a statement Moyes has stood by, and often since referred to.
At the time, Fellaini was indeed enjoying a fine run of form, yet he was certainly not regarded as élite by anyone not associated with Everton. In fact, due to the crazily high card count he racked up during his primitive years in English football, and the attention this received, many chose to categorise him as a bully, void of true footballing qualities.
Injury sadly curtailed Fellaini’s season shortly after these quotes, at least temporarily consigning that debate to the sidelines. Indeed last year, injury also hampered the Belgian, as he only started 19 games in the Premier League. Seemingly in peak condition for most of this current campaign, those who have regularly seen his performances would surely agree he is now back to, and even progressing past the form that lead to Moyes’ previous remarks.
Last week I gathered together statistics that portrayed exactly how far Fellaini has progressed over the last two seasons, and just how pivotal he now is to the Toffees. The results are here, but to cut to the chase, he has improved in pretty much every category. But just how good is he on a wider scale? Regarded by most around Everton as being the club’s most valuable asset (alongside Leighton Baines), how does he rate against his leading positional rivals?
Fellaini is a combative midfielder, at his best when anchoring a midfield. 10 years ago, he would have fitted into the Premier League seamlessly, and perhaps been heralded far more when destructive midfielders such as Roy Keane and Patrick Vieira ran the show. Primarily a ball winner, Fellaini also shows surprising touch and poise when in possession, whilst often seeming unbeatable in the air thanks to his lofty frame.
Next Page: Fellaini compared to Tiote, Barry, Parker and Song
To chart his progress, I thought it best to first take players of a similar ilk from the Premier League’s top seven, who have all seen a similar amount of action this season. Therefore, Scott Parker, Alex Song, Gareth Barry and Cheick Tiote all make the cut. Ball winning, retention and distribution are all core values of a defensive midfielder’s arsenal, and here are the relevant categories for this quintet.
The most revealing feature of this chart is Fellaini’s clear dominance and superiority in and around the tackle area. He is quite simply prolific, winning almost nine out of every 10 attempts, a ratio no-one can touch. In fact, his nearest challenger, Gareth Barry, is 15% less efficient in that department, itself a striking margin. Similarly in ground 50-50s, although Parker and Barry scarcely eclipse his success rate of 52%, Fellaini’s skill in this area is similarly powerful, victorious in 151 of these contests.
Predictably, Fellaini also posts impressive numbers in the air, winning double as many clashes as any of the others on this list, and at a far higher success rate. Interestingly, even with 5 less starts than Tiote, Fellaini is also the hardest man on this list for opponents to dribble past. This season, that has happened on just 21 occasions, whereas Alex Song has been turned, and left for dead 36 times.
Next Page: Fellaini compared to Fletcher, Mikel, Lucas Leiva, Cattermole, Nzonzi, Reo-Coker & Petrov…
It is worth noting, Darren Fletcher, Lucas and John Obi Mikel would have been my choices from Manchester United, Liverpool and Chelsea respectively, but none have started more than 12 games this season which distorts their results slightly. However, I ran a quick check, to gauge their own tackling success, to see if they measured up to Fellaini’s tally.
Again, his stunning success rate is not threatened, although Lucas has a similarly rapacious appetite when it comes to tackling. Given a full season, he would perhaps topple Fellaini’s overall tackle count, although seemingly still at a less efficient rate.
Watch an Everton game and it is remarkable just how much Fellaini does wrestle the ball back for his team. Just last weekend against QPR, the briefest match highlight reel would still show him robbing Adel Taarabt, before calmly dumping the ball at the feet of Steven Pienaar, who then finds the eventual goal scorer, Royston Drenthe.
Adding these results to the fact he has won the ball 127 times in midfield – a remarkably high number – it questions whether there is actually a better ball winning midfielder in the Premier League? Thinking these numbers could be a reflection of the top teams having a greater share of possession, I sought out a few more ball winners, from less successful teams.
As is depicted, it seemingly has little relation to a team’s possession and again the numbers remain hugely complimentary to Fellaini. Nobody is anywhere near as potent or effective in the tackle, and his knack of repeatedly coming up with the ball in midfield is further enhanced. Further research shows Fellaini’s haul of 127 is in fact currently bettered by nobody in the entire league. He is way ahead of Song (110) and Youssuf Mulumbu (108), who are next on the list.
Next Page: Revisiting the Fellaini, Tiote, Barry, Parker and Song comparison…
Revisiting the first table, what possibly separates Fellaini from the truly élite in the game, are his passing statistics. Although 79% is a decent, above average return, football – especially when it comes to key continental encounters – focuses around the possession battle, which of course has two sides. Fellaini is clearly an expert when it comes to gaining the ball for his team, but the best managers would expect that – once obtained – he would seldom lose it. It is telling how Barry’s numbers dominate here, considering he roams around the midfield of the current league leaders.
Less efficient than Fellaini without the ball, Barry and Parker are clearly more relevant to their teams with it. They pass much more, and with a far higher success rate. Both they, and Song too, are also dispossessed far less, traits Fellaini must address if he seeks to further his reputation and round his game. On a slightly irrelevant note, for Tiote to be dispossessed 56 times in 16 games, almost 3.5 times per match, is possibly the most striking discovery of them all here!
Fellaini’s passing game, whilst unspectacular, is still above average. In fact, the only real negative to tarnish these impressive findings is his foul count. True his five yellow cards are less than his peers, but the 60 times he has fouled, and therefore permitted the opposition to freely launch an attack, is unforgivable. His impetuous nature is certainly a channel that needs to be further diluted as he matures. If he wants to permanently shed the tag of being a yellow card waiting to happen, or a foul machine (both surely unfair, considering these results show him to be a master in the art of tackling) he will want to address this.
When it comes to winning the ball, there are few better in midfield than Marouane Fellaini. He simply bosses the tackle area, continually regains possession and is rarely beaten by an opponent. Hopefully these numbers will impress football supporters not just associated with Everton, who may only catch the clips on Match of the Day that rarely showcase Fellaini at his commanding best.
Getting the ball he clearly excels, but if the Belgian does want to truly prove himself as a leading defensive midfielder, he will need to marginally raise his game when in possession. The transposition does not have to be major, but a 5%-7% increase in passing would make his case more appealing. Additionally, more of an urge to be a factor going forward, receiving and taking care of the ball, and then spreading play, would surely leave his game being seen as almost irresistible. Having only just turned 24, still with plenty of time to hone his game further, it might not be long before a few more start echoing those views expressed by David Moyes.
All of the stats on the table above have been taken from the Opta Stats Centre at EPLIndex.com – Subscribe Now (Includes author privileges!) See Demo’s and videos about the Stats Centre & read about new additions to the stats centre.