Marouane Fellaini first came to prominence as a Standard Liège player. Unknown to most Premier League fans, Fellaini outshone a number of well-known Liverpool players when the sides met in a Champions League qualifier. Liverpool eventually progressed and David Moyes seized on Liege’s failure by making Fellaini into Everton’s record signing, as the August 2009 transfer window slammed shut.
Following his arrival, Marouane Fellaini played in an unfamiliar advanced role. Having adjusted to the frenetic nature of English football, the former Liège man ended his first season with nine goals from 32 appearances. After a moderately successful opening campaign, Fellaini returned to his usual central midfield position and flourished. The Belgium international dominated against numerous opponents with his reputation growing in tandem with his hair. In the final weeks of last season, the midfield man returned to the advanced role and has remained there ever since. The question is which position is best for Fellaini and for Everton. Using statistics from this season and last season, the answer may become clearer.
Spending most of last season is his preferred midfield position, the contrast between Fellaini’s defending statistics is glaringly obvious. Pressed further forward, Fellaini is contesting more ground and aerial duels but his success rate has dropped. Often the target for set pieces and goal kicks, aerial duels have increased to one every 11.65 minutes compared to 24.83 minutes in 2011 / 12. With his back to goal, the disadvantaged Fellaini cannot compete as the opposing defenders can attack the ball. No longer able to attack the ball in the air, Fellaini’s aerial success has plummeted from a standout 74% to a mediocre 52%.
Last season, one of the Belgian’s strongest attributes was his tackling and he ended the season with an impressive tackle success rate of 84.85%. Left battling for possession and unable to win it cleanly, Fellaini is attempting fewer tackles and tackle accuracy has dropped from just under 85% to 77.27%. In terms of interceptions, Fellaini is making less than one per game compared to a rate of 1.7 per game in 2011/12.
From a defensive point of view, Everton are not getting the best out of Fellaini with outputs lower and poorer success rates. This is apparent when reviewing the possession statistics. Last season, Fellaini lost possession just 33 times in 34 appearances. He has already surpassed that total in 2012/13 with possession conceded 39 times in 13 matches. Shifting from one loss of possession per 87 minutes, Fellaini is now losing the ball three times per match. As mentioned before, his defensive outputs and success rates have dropped and that is further underlined in this example; possession won has decreased for once every 10 minutes to once every 16 minutes.
Only a third of the way through the season, a direct comparison between raw passing data would be grossly misleading. However, when looking at the passing accuracy results, it is clear that the advanced role is affecting Fellaini’s game. Although the changes are minimal, Fellaini fares better in central midfield when there are more options ahead of him. Passing accuracy has dropped from 80% to 79% with defensive and attacking success rates down by two percent and one percent. The only category without change is the final third; Fellaini’s final third passing accuracy has remained at a respectable 72%.
Fellaini’s attacking involvement cancels out the drop in his defensive statistics and the midfield man is set for his best season (from an attacking perspective). Posting four assists in 34 appearances last season, Fellaini has returned three in 13 matches in 2012/13 and is level with Steven Pienaar as Everton’s best assister. Playing in central midfield, Fellaini created 25 chances at a rate of one every 114 minutes in 2011/12 and those figures already pale in comparison. In the more advanced role, Fellaini has created 22 chances at a rate of one every 53 minutes. Improving his creation rate by over 100% from 2011/12, Fellaini is set for his most creative season in an Everton shirt. Perhaps most impressive is the clear-cut chances category with last season’s total of five already bettered this campaign(6). Creating a clear-cut chance every 571.2 minutes in 2011/12, this season’s figure of 194.2 minutes is comparatively brilliant.
The area with the greatest improvement is attacking. Fellaini’s return of eight goals in 13 games easily improves on 3 in 34 from 2011/12. Prior to this season, Fellaini had returned a modest 14 goals in 107 league appearances. Despite playing just 13 games this season, Fellaini has already tied his best Premier League goals return (8 – 2009/10). Last season’s 36 shots are already under threat with 34 shots so far and his minutes: shot ratio has dropped from 79 to 34. As goals and shots have increased, the relevant percentages have also improved and shooting accuracy is up 15% (44% to 59%) whilst chance conversion has trebled from 8% to 24%. The greatest increase is in clear-cut chance conversion with Fellaini converting 60% of his clear openings in comparison to last season’s measly 17%.
In spite of all the statistics, there is still no definitive answer regarding Fellaini’s best position. When in central midfield, the team misses his newfound attacking ability and the reverse applies when pushed forward. Following Darron Gibson’s arrival in January, he and Fellaini formed a strong midfield pairing and the return of that partnership could only be a positive. Lacking numbers and quality in central areas, Everton have enough players to counter Fellaini’s absence in the advanced role. Leon Osman, Steven Pienaar, Kevin Mirallas and Steven Naismith are all capable of providing goals and each has featured in the advanced role before.
Fellaini’s best position remains open to debate, as there are obvious pros and cons, but Everton have a greater need for him in midfield. Defensive frailties and a brittle midfield have troubled Everton throughout this campaign and the team would certainly benefit from his tough, physical presence at the heart of the midfield. Allowing Darron Gibson to fill the water-carrier role, Fellaini can thrive in the box-to-box role and that allows him to retain his goal-scoring threat.
Write about Everton for ESPN and EPL Index. Evertonian with a keen interest in the tactical and statistical. Twitter: @lukeofarrell
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