Marouane FellainiÃ¢ÂÂs display against Manchester United on the opening weekend of the season was the perfect way to start his 2012/13 campaign.
Dominating the game in the air, creating chances with his knock-downs, and scoring the only goal Ã¢ÂÂ the performance probably hasnÃ¢ÂÂt been bettered since, by any player in the league.
Ã¢ÂÂWhen he plays like that he is unplayable because of his sheer size,Ã¢ÂÂ Everton captain Phil Neville said after his sideÃ¢ÂÂs 1-0 victory. Ã¢ÂÂWe can mix it up and play a bit more direct Ã¢ÂÂ it allows you to play up the field and create chances. He was the focal point of every attack we had.Ã¢ÂÂ
His fifth season with Everton has surely been his best so far. As an all-round central midfielder Ã¢ÂÂ capable of scrapping on the ground, winning duels in the air and playing neat forward passes into attack Ã¢ÂÂ David Moyes often seemed unsure of where to use the Belgian. Although itÃ¢ÂÂs now obvious his best role is as an auxiliary striker, previously Fellaini appeared better suited to a deeper central midfield role.
Ã¢ÂÂI personally think his best position is causing problems in the attacking third, says Neville. Ã¢ÂÂHe is such an awkward player to play against. WeÃ¢ÂÂve lost Tim Cahill who has served this club well for years, but Fellaini can fit into that role.Ã¢ÂÂ
But while Cahill was brilliant at making late runs into the box, Fellaini is more of a permanent presence. As Everton knock the ball from side to side, retaining possession calmly, Fellaini moves upfront to a position where he can receive the ball with his back to goal. Unlike Cahill, who relied on a tremendous leap, Fellaini is naturally a huge physical presence. His ability to hold off opponents instinctively means he brings the ball down on his chest as often as he challenges for it with his head, which allows midfield runners, particularly Steven Pienaar, to thrive on his lay-offs.
This weekend, Everton will concentrate on testing Manchester United in the air. Against a goalkeeper perhaps unfairly perceived as weak on crosses, FellainiÃ¢ÂÂs aerial threat will be particularly crucial. Manchester United came under heavy pressure late on against both Tottenham Ã¢ÂÂ where they conceded a late goal to Clint Dempsey, and Fulham Ã¢ÂÂ where they just about held on.
Their back four will be significantly stronger than in the reverse fixture at Goodison Park, when Antonio Valencia and Michael Carrick comprised the right half of the defence, but Fellaini can be impossible to cope with in the air, even for the best centre-backs in the league.
UnitedÃ¢ÂÂs best chance of stopping Fellaini is to prevent Everton moving too high up the pitch in possession. Although United have often sit back and counter-attack against dangerous opponents, the recent home contest against Liverpool saw them pressing high up the pitch to great effect, particularly in the first half. Against Liverpool this stopped short passing, against the side from across Stanley Park it would stop Leighton Baines getting time to loft the ball forward to Fellaini. Keeping a high line also makes sense Ã¢ÂÂ West Brom were braver than Everton in their recent meetings with Fellaini, and the Belgian received the ball in much deeper positions.
MoyesÃ¢ÂÂ main dilemma is who should partner FellainiÃ¢ÂÂs partner in attack. Goals have been a significant problem for Everton this season, with Nikica JelavicÃ¢ÂÂs form declining alarmingly in recent weeks. His performances against Swansea and Southampton were the final straw for Moyes Ã¢ÂÂ against the former he kept missing the target, against the latter he wasnÃ¢ÂÂt even having shots.
Instead, Moyes has turned to Victor Anichebe. The Nigerian-born strikerÃ¢ÂÂs performance against Aston Villa last weekend was encouraging, but itÃ¢ÂÂs worth considering how infrequently Anichebe wins aerial duels. Against West Brom, in particular, he didnÃ¢ÂÂt win any of his seven contests.
AnichebeÃ¢ÂÂs goal last weekend should be enough to keep him in the side for Sunday's fixture, but with Moyes likely to instruct his players to cross the ball and test United aerially, JelavicÃ¢ÂÂs trademark darts towards the near post may prove more useful. Either way, Fellaini will provide the main threat Ã¢ÂÂ and UnitedÃ¢ÂÂs first task is to prevent service towards him.
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