Despite looking like an actor hired to play the role of Ronald McDonald, Marouane Fellaini is one of the most intimidating and fierce competitors in English football. His physical presence and unyielding strength is coupled with textbook technique and a portfolio of sublime passing skills. The new Premier League season may still be in its infancy, but both Manchester United and Aston Villa have already been slayed by Everton’s latest talisman.
Fellaini arrived at Everton as a promising 20-year-old from Standard Liege in a deal worth somewhere north of £15m. Fours years on and the Belgium international is beginning to justify his status as the club’s record transfer signing, a welcome relief perhaps given such limited financial resources. His newfound versatility to play as both a box-to-box midfielder and a robust target man raises the question as to whether Fellaini is the perfect candidate to fill the much desired ‘False 9’ role?
For those of you bewildered by this modern formation, the ‘False 9’ is a player who appears to be operating as a centre-forward but instead drops much deeper, meaning the team are effectively playing without a striker. This intriguing strategy allows the team to attack in waves as a single unit and leaves the lonely centre-backs to batten down the hatches as they await the swarm of players heading towards them. Lionel Messi adopts the ‘False 9’ role for Barcelona while Wayne Rooney may also act in a similar fashion if he’s the lone forward and isn’t seeing any of the ball. Oh, and Spain recently won the European Championships – in some style I might add – using this exact same system.
The main drawback of the ‘False 9’ is that the more disciplined and experienced teams will simply line up with two banks of four, frustrating teams by suffocating space in the middle of the pitch. This is essentially how Chelsea conquered Europe last season, although their incredible counter-attacking pace and the exploits of Didier Drogba were also contributing factors. Teams that employ the ‘False 9’ tend to be stubborn in their refusal to switch to ‘plan b’ and place a big centre forward as a fixed point of attack. This is where Fellaini has a chance to shine.
Whereas most midfielders don’t possess the ruthless clinical edge of their attacking team-mates and most strikers can’t muster a tackle without conceding a foul, Fellaini forms a rare breed of player who boasts both attributes. Almost every defender would admit their biggest fear involves Messi hurtling towards them followed by his Catalan brethren but imagine Fellaini doing the same, he would smash through even the most resilient of defensive barricades.
The departures of Jack Rodwell and perhaps more significantly, Tim Cahill, has enabled David Moyes to fashion a new-look Everton. Fellaini has effectively been handed the keys to Goodison Park, using his new found freedom to flex his creative muscle at the heart of the Toffees’ attack. He is no longer confined to the anchorman position in front of the back four and can therefore hassle and intimidate the opposition further up the pitch.
Fellaini was a worthy man of the match in his sides opening fixture against Manchester United but alongside the flurry of plaudits Sir Alex Ferguson suggested their famous victory was down to simply “lumping the ball forward”. While his comments were not without foundation, Everton castrated Rooney and co with relative ease while laying siege to a weakened United backline in the most direct and effective manner possible. They were quick to revert to their attacking prowess against Villa and even former Liverpool manager Kenny Dalglish was quick to point out “If you can’t handle that, it’s a weakness in your team, not a criticism of the opposition for playing the way they do.” (The Mirror)
Everton goalkeeper Tim Howard perhaps issued Fellaini with the biggest compliment when he compared him to former fan favourite and opposition battering ram Duncan Ferguson.
“Duncan had the same make-up in terms of being able to dominate someone for 90 minutes. I was happy to be on the right end of it this time. United just couldn’t cope with him.”
“There’s a certain point at which you say it’s impossible to defend against him because he’s so tall, and takes up such good positions you either have to come through the back of him and concede a foul, or stop him controlling it with his chest, which is hard.” (The Sun)
Of course this discussion of a ‘False 9’ role is rather futile considering Moyes has both Nikica Jelavic and new signing Kevin Mirallas at his disposal. However, there remains plenty of potential and it only requires one or two injuries – a recurring theme at Everton – and Fellaini could be thrust into this role in the same way which saw Tim Cahill emerge as Moyes’ main goal threat.
I can’t help but draw comparisons with Manchester City’s Yaya Toure, both players have been revitalised after having their defensive shackles removed while both will be instrumental in any success their club sides are destined to achieve, and with two goals in as many games, it’s safe to say Fellaini is relishing his new role as the Merseyside Menace.
Join me on Twitter @theunusedsub where I am anticipating the ‘False 9’ will prevail in tonight’s Spanish Super Cup match.