Few clubs were as busy on transfer deadline day as Roberto Martinez’s Everton. The Toffees spent all summer casting nervous glances at Old Trafford, where former Everton manager David Moyes held an open interest in Merseyside stars Leighton Baines and Marouane Fellaini. United’s somewhat bungled transfer window only saw Fellaini join and at the robust price tag of 27 million pounds. With that influx of cash, Martinez turned around and replaced the Belgian with his own former midfielder: James McCarthy of Wigan Athletic.
Both players consider themselves central midfielders and it’s in the middle of park where they’ll line up for their respective new sides this year. An interesting point when comparing these players is Moyes’ use of Fellaini in an advanced role, just off the main striker last season. With that in mind, we’re essentially analyzing McCarthy and two different versions of Fellaini: the unorthodox support striker of 2012/2013 and the more traditional holding midfielder utilized by Martinez to start this campaign.
Defensively, the two players have very different strengths and weaknesses. The statistics suggest McCarthy is not only strong in the tackle, but also possesses keen positional awareness. His ground duel 50-50 win percentage significantly betters Fellaini both last season and the current one, as does his rate of an interception every 39.7 minutes. Reading the game is an area Fellaini will need to drastically improve at Old Trafford. He recorded an interception just every 71 minutes last year and, remarkably, only every 135 minutes so far in a deeper role this season.
Encouragingly for United fans though, Fellaini’s return to his natural position has brought out his more aggressive side. Not only has he attempted a tackle every 21 minutes instead of every 34, but his tackle success percentage has also jumped to 85% from 73%. Fellaini’s most obvious advantage over McCarthy is his afro, and not just for style points. The Belgium’s dominance in the air became a key aspect of Everton’s attack last season, and has been heavily utilised by Martinez in front of his defence.
Last year’s Everton was largely based around width and whipping crosses into the area by the likes of Leighton Baines and Seamus Coleman. Fellaini feasted on this supply, attempting an aerial 50-50 every 11 minutes and winning 60% of them. As a deeper midfielder under Martinez, Fellaini’s aerial challenges occur every 13.5 minutes, but he’s winning them at a stunning 90% success rate (albeit from a smaller sample). These changes make sense, as Fellaini is no longer the focal point of Everton’s aerial assault (explaining the small drop in volume), but he’s now combating other central midfielders as opposed to center backs (explaining his higher success rate).
Even when playing under Martinez’s new system, Fellaini’s aerial prowess will be sorely missed. McCarthy attempted an aerial duel roughly once per match last season and only won 42% of them. Obviously, this will affect Everton’s threat from set-pieces, but it’s also worth acknowledging that the Toffees will exert less influence over goal kicks and other long balls up the field.
While many, including Fellaini himself, insist that his best position is deep in midfield, he did carry a serious goal threat under Moyes in 2012/2013. His 11 Premier League goals led the team and accounted for a fifth of Everton’s overall scoring. The total itself may not be all that impressive but when you consider a shooting accuracy of 54%, a chance conversion rate of 17%, and a clear-cut chance conversion rate of 36% you wonder if it makes sense to diminish these attributes as a holding midfielder.
McCarthy, on the other hand, should not be counted upon to provide attacking menace in the final third. With only three goals for Wigan last year, the Irishman scored once every 1,125 minutes and only fired off an accurate shot every 375 minutes. Furthermore, despite a very respectable pass completion percentage, McCarthy created a chance just once every 94 minutes and a clear-cut chance once every 3,374 minutes.
Only time will tell whether these transfers prove to be wise investments, but at first glance it seems this merry-go-round could benefit both United and Everton. As shown by his stats under Martinez, Fellaini is more than capable of playing an energetic holding role and will nicely complement Michael Carrick’s more cultured approach. Whether Moyes will be tempted to unshackle the Belgian in the final third however, is a question yet to be answered. Though less of an all-around threat than Fellaini, McCarthy should prove to be a quality, albeit less dynamic replacement based upon his strong positional awareness and tidiness in possession.