In the Premier League, Everton now boast the joint second worst attack, with no player finding the net more than three times this season. With just the 26 goals scored, it is no surprise that this precarious characteristic has generated far more attention than most other elements of the Toffees’ game.
However, on the flip-side of their attacking deficiencies, and what has kept the Toffees afloat and competitive for large parts of this campaign has been a stubborn, uncompromising defence. After 26 games last season David Moyes’ side had shipped 36 goals. With the same amount of matches concluded this campaign, only a stingy 27 have been conceded, a record bettered by just the two Manchester clubs and Liverpool. The Toffees are also the best tacklers in the league (79%), have allowed the fewest shots on goal (88) and conceded the fewest amount of goals from crosses this season (4).
A major reason for this upturn in form has been the progression of Marouane Fellaini. The back four have indeed been cohesive and robust, but the Belgian’s form anchoring the midfield has generally been the decisive factor in grinding out results. The way he has marshalled defenders and frantically pestered opposing attackers has almost caused his on-field persona to resemble that of an overly fussy parent, intent on leading his charges over the line.
Here is a look at where exactly he has progressed on from last season, analysing several key facets of a defensive midfielder’s game.
First thing’s first, his statistics were good last year. The fact he only managed half a season will have undoubtedly affected the Toffees who are always a far more resilient outfit with Fellaini on board. However, there are a few areas where he has clearly taken his game to a new level this season.
First up, tackling. As mentioned, Everton are now the best tacklers in the Premier League. Nobody beats their 79% team tally and they are clearly lead here by their influential Belgian. He is easily the side’s top ball winner and, over time, has dramatically honed his tackling skills which are right up there with the best in the league. He is now making 87% count over the respectable 71% he managed last season, a truly impressive transposition.
Elsewhere on the defensive side, when contesting aerial duels he had a habit of relying on his considerable frame, and perhaps raising his arms instead of timing his jump. This only won him 58% of tussles last season—not such a special return for a player standing over 6 ft 4. However this season he had been dominant, calculating his leap far more conscientiously and winning 78% of duels—again leading the Toffees for players with over five attempts, whilst significantly trumping the club average which (amusingly) stands at 50%.
Last season Everton conceded 31 goals in the 18 games Fellaini missed and a more miserly 24 in the 20 he played. This year he has tightened the defensive core further, shipping just 21 goals in the 21 games he has appeared in. He has also been dribbled past and beaten less, while continuing his impressive ability to read the game, making 36 interceptions so far this campaign.
When Everton do have the ball he has also upped his production, improving his passing ability is three crucial areas. Most significantly in the final third of the field, where Everton must be more accurate now deprived of the intricate creative skills of Mikel Arteta. He is also far more assured when in possession, only coughing up the ball once every 96 minutes, compared the 69 minutes he surrendered play last season.
With some notable seismic improvements, and most numbers augmented across the board, only three of these 13 categories see any reduction in his game. His ground duel success rate has slightly wavered, slipping from 54% to 51% and he has conjured up slightly less chances for his team, although both are marginal declines and very rectifiable by the end of the season.
The sole area he may be keen to monitor is his foul count, something he has always been battling since moving to English shores. With seven bookings, David Moyes will not want to see his prize asset reach 10 before the 8th of April, a tally that would incur a two game suspension. Everton will not benefit from his continuing ascent in the game if he is unable to play.
Signed for £15 million, Fellaini was not on many Evertonians’ radar when he first arrived at the club. On the field it was clear he had raw potential and undoubted pedigree, but initially he often looked awkward and ungainly in possession. He also appeared unable to curb his tendency to foul.
His considerable price tag saw many question the logic and sanity of investing so much on such a working project. Thrust up front for much of his first season, a scenario never questioned by Fellaini, he was unable to ever showcase his true strengths in these early outings, causing sections of support to unfairly chastise their record signing.
Right now for the Toffees, along with Leighton Baines, he is undeniably the club’s most crucial component and key presence on the pitch. What truly validates his transfer is the fact he recently agreed to sign a bumper new deal at the club. David Moyes has gradually moulded and crafted him into this top performer, and now he gets to see his project through. Should Fellaini leave, it will have to be for a considerably higher fee than what was spent on him in 2008.
Just how good Fellaini is, will be a subject for another day. Moyes has never been shy to label the Belgian as an élite player in his position, and that is something I am going to investigate next week, comparing his return this season with some other stand-out combative midfielders.
For Everton, Fellaini’s rapid transformation has made him indispensable for the team. At the end of this term his stellar defensive attributes will be pitted against the creative powers of Leighton Baines, in what should be a two-horse race for the club’s Player of the Season. Judging by how much an underrated defence unit have bailed out their misfiring attack, at this stage Fellaini seems the deserving recipient.