When Everton manager David Moyes signed Marouane Fellaini for an initial £15 million in 2008, supporters of the club were taken aback at the unusual splash of cash on a relatively unknown player from Belgium.
Only 20 years old at the time, Fellaini’s name may have not been easily recognized across the continent, but he was certainly a budding star within the Belgian Pro League. In two seasons at top club Standard Liège, the midfielder made 64 appearances, scoring 9 goals. In the 2007-08 campaign, Fellaini won the league championship with the club—their first since the 1982-83 season—and was awarded the Ebony Shoe for being the best player of African descent in the country.
Even the most faithful Standard supporters expected a move abroad for the Afro-bearing colossus. But for the usually cash-strapped Everton to make such a huge outlay—on a player who remains their record signing—showed that the management had huge expectations for Fellaini.
Lacking a quality defensive midfielder after the departure of Lee Carlsley to Birmingham City, Moyes was genuinely impressed by the Belgian’s bullying performances against Liverpool in the 2008 Champions League qualifying rounds. (Standard Liège was eventually eliminated 1-0 on aggregate.) He figured Fellaini could slot into the strongman’s position ahead of the backline.
Although it took several games for Fellaini to adjust to the EPL, he eventually became an intimidating presence in midfield and even contributed 8 league goals, largely due to his huge aerial presence on set-pieces and crosses into the box. After overcoming bookings (10 in his first 17 matches, resulting in a meeting with former top England referee Keith Hackett in an attempt to cool his behavior) and becoming accustomed to the quicker pace and robust style of Moyes, Fellaini showed his worth as a key asset in Everton’s march to the 2008 FA Cup Final, which they lost 2-1 to Chelsea.
The following two seasons would return mixed reviews on the Belgian. On both occasions, Everton started out the season poorly and began their climb up the table in January, eventually finishing 8th in the 2009-10 campaign and 7th in 2010-11.
Fellaini played an important defensive role. Following his dominant performance against Manchester City in 2010, he was labeled by Moyes as “the best midfielder in the country”.
Soon after, however, he was severely injured by Sotirios Kyrgiakos in the Merseyside Derby, and stayed out until the beginning of the 2010-11 season. The storyline repeated itself in 2010-11 and Fellaini was forced off in an FA Cup match against Chelsea in February, playing only 25 total matches that season and not returning until August.
By that time, Moyes and Everton supporters were convinced of the Belgian’s value when fit and firing. His coolness in possession, ability to make important tackles and eye for passes, coupled with his obvious physical endowments, were unique and could prove vital for Everton to return to European football and possibly even the Champions League. Nevertheless, injuries limited him to less than 50 league matches over two campaigns and Fellaini showed a tendency to be lethargic and even indifferent when the team were tracking back or losing a match.
Another slow start in the 2011-12 season caused even more pressure to mount. And, in spite of the doubters, he proved absolutely pivotal to the squad, especially with the rejuvenation that accompanied the arrival in January of Darron Gibson, Steven Pienaar and Nikica Jelavic. Fellaini finished the campaign with 43 appearances and 6 goals.
In league play, statistics show that the massive midfielder won more tackles and aerial duels and made more passes than anyone else at the club. Looking at the entire EPL, Fellaini collected the second-highest number of tackles won. He also took possession of the ball 190 times, the highest for any player in what has been called Europe’s hardest-tackling and highest-intensity league.
Just as Fellaini was beginning to look like arguably the most well-equipped defensive midfielder in the British Isles, Moyes decided to try him out in a more advanced position, similar to the experiments he attempted in the Belgian's first two seasons at Everton. The sale of loyal club servant Tim Cahill to the New York Red Bulls saw a legend leave and a gap form behind the striker, known by supporters as the “Cahill role.” Many thought that this role would be filled by new arrivals Steven Naismith or Kevin Mirallas.
However, Fellaini lined up behind Nikica Jelavic in the opening match of the campaign against Manchester United and thrilled Goodison Park with a dazzling and powerful performance that culminated in a headed winner for a 1-0 victory over the perennial champions.
The Belgian has persisted in the “Cahill role” and scored 8 league goals in 13 league appearances—two more than in his prior three seasons combined. He is a fascinating prospect at only 25 years old. If he had not signed a long-term contract with the club last season, there would be potential for a transfer melee with many of Europe’s biggest clubs circling.
While reports circulated in the early part of the campaign that Fellaini was ready to leave the Merseyside club, he made clear that he is currently happy at Everton and simply hopes to one day play in the Champions League.
Along with the consistently rumored interest of Chelsea, mega-rich Russian club Zenit St. Petersburg and Arsenal have both recently been linked with a move for the Belgian which would probably cost £25-30 million.
It is still not likely for Fellaini to move away from Everton before this season comes to a close. And Moyes will be hoping that his side starts winning again, after six draws in eight matches, so as to make Champions League football a realistic possibility and a motivation for his more promising players.
The only certainty is that in four seasons with the Merseysiders, Fellaini has transformed from a potential force to one of the EPL’s best performers and most coveted midfielders. The big Belgian is tricky, commanding, agile and a constant threat in the air, and he has chest control like no other in European football.
All in all, Fellaini is Everton’s special gem.
Everton and Fellaini will be in action against Tottenham Hotspur on Sunday, December 9th. The club will be hoping the influential midfielder’s goalscoring form continues, with their opponents also competing for a coveted place in Europe’s top continental competition.