The Everton midfielder would fill a massive void in terms of his physicality, aggression and aerial ability but just how much does he suit being used in a deeper, defensive role?
By Ewan Roberts
Ever since Patrick Vieira left Arsenal in 2005 – a departure that coincided with the Gunners’ ever-increasing trophy drought – the north London club have lacked a gritty midfield enforcer. Alex Song threatened to take on that mantle before exiting for Barcelona, while Abou Diaby could only produce in fleeting moments of rare, injury-free promise.
But, with the news that Arsenal have met the release clause considered to be over €25 million in Everton midfielder Marouane Fellaini’s contract, Arsene Wenger may, finally, have located the robust, uber-physical, aggressive destroyer that the team has been crying out for.
The Belgium international ticks many of the boxes that have been left woefully unchecked for the eight long seasons since Patrick Vieira joined Juventus.
Fellaini, with his flailing elbows and bouts of corner-flag-kicking red mist, possesses the raw feistiness that was so present in the combative and, importantly, title-winning Arsenal squads of old (from Martin Keown and Tony Adams through to Vieira) and which has been so absent in the current setup.
|THE BELGIAN BRUISER
|FELLAINI’S 2012-13 SEASON
PASSES PER GAME
KEY PASSES PER GAME
SHOTS PER GAME
AERIAL DUELS WON PER GAME
TACKLES PER GAME
There was a time when the Gunners were so bellicose and belligerent that Wenger trained for the possibility – or, rather, probability – that his side would be reduced to 10 men. Now they are meeker and milder, a collection of passive pass-masters. Last season, their total of 42 yellow cards was the lowest since the 1993-94 season.
But Fellaini would change that. The 25-year-old, tough and unyielding in the tackle, goes to war with the opposition, breathlessly contesting the middle third with his blend of height, strength and truculence. Somewhat surprisingly, he has only been sent off once in his Premier League career but he has picked up a yellow card, on average, every 3.8 games. Lee Bowyer, who has the joint-most yellow cards in Premier League history, averaged one every four games.
The Everton man would be a worthy counterbalance to the craft and technique of Arsenal’s existing midfield trio, with the ball retention of Mikel Arteta and the creativity of Jack Wilshere anchored by the destructive, combative Fellaini; the grit to their grace, the savagery to their artistry.
Fellaini’s stand-out defensive season came in 2010-11, when he averaged 3.4 tackles per game. Arteta mustered an impressive 3.2 last season but, apart from that, Arsenal’s midfielders have rarely got close to that figure in previous seasons (2.7 was the most in 2009-10, 2.1 in 2010-11, 2.9 in 2011-12).
The former Standard Liege midfielder has also contested ground duels with far greater regularity than Arteta, won a higher percentage of aerial 50-50s, had a better tackles success rate (73 per cent) and was dribbled past fewer times (just 13 times compared to 37 for Arteta).
Fellaini’s great strength is his aerial ability, both gobbling up high balls in a defensive capacity (from patrolling the midfield to buffeting away set-pieces from within his own box) and causing havoc in the opposition’s penalty area. Five of his 11 goals – or 45% – were with his head last season.
The Belgian won 151 aerial duels in his 31 league outings – the fourth-best record in the Premier League behind Andy Carroll, Peter Crouch and Christian Benteke. While those strikers are wrecking balls and little else – lone, often isolated targets up front for centre-backs to catapult long balls towards – Fellaini is considerably less one-dimensional.
His assist against Sunderland in November, back-heeling the ball between the legs of John O’Shea to allow Steven Pienaar to score, showed a technique and vision that belies his rugged, powerhouse stereotype, while he attempted more passes per game (52.5) than Wilshere (47.7) last season.
Where Arsenal have lacked a true goalscoring midfielder, with their central trio largely impotent in front of goal, Fellaini has been at his most productive, bagging 11 league goals. Aaron Ramsey scored just once, Wilshere failed to find the back of the net in the league and Arteta notched just once from open play (though did add five goals from the penalty spot).
But this is where Fellaini’s suitability is called into question. Last season, his goals return and effectiveness was largely due to his redeployment as a No.10, playing far higher up the pitch and just behind a lone frontman. All 16 of his goals and assists came from an advanced role, whereas he underwhelmed comparatively in his four outings in a deeper role – the defensive midfield position that he would be expected to play at Arsenal.
Playing deeper might suit the Gunners and Fellaini himself.
“I prefer defensive midfield because I know my job when I play there,” said the Belgian last season but it may decrease his effectiveness and dilute the traits that have made him such an imposing and domineering nuisance – and so in-demand.
Perhaps he could be pushed forward belatedly as a Plan B option a la Yaya Toure at Manchester City, though the Gunners’ inability to utilise Olivier Giroud’s height and aerial ability casts doubt over that being a success. The Ivorian’s pace, energy and power also stands in stark contrast to the Belgian and you suspect that Arsenal’s midfield could use more zip and athleticism than Fellaini provides.
That also raises the question of how much Fellaini’s impact has been as a result of Everton’s direct approach and whether that will translate to the different style employed at Arsenal. Only two teams, West Ham and Reading, attempted more crosses than David Moyes’s side, while they played the third-most long balls too. Arsenal, meanwhile, played the second-fewest number of long balls and the most number of short passes.
It is abundantly clear that Fellaini would fill a very obvious void in Arsenal’s side – a fired-up ball of rage, a towering presence, a tough-tackling fighter – but, with so much of his best work coming in an advanced role, a role that would be denied to him in north London, perhaps he is not quite the perfect fit – and, at €25m, Arsenal need the complete package.
*All statistics courtesy of www.WhoScored.com and www.eplindex.com
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