In Everton’s 1-0 victory against Manchester United, Marouane Fellaini put in a man of the match performance in an advanced midfield position. While his goal came from a set piece it was his dominance in open play that really stood out – the Belgian constantly beat United players for headers, flick ons, and aerial balls played into his chest. His first touch was sublime and his play back to goal really helped Everton relieve the visitors’ pressing.
It is interesting to note that Fellaini played a typical target man role about 15 yards deeper than where a target man usually plays. He was the nominal 10 while Nikica Jelavic played highest up the pitch. This is not unlike when Robert Lewandowski was deployed as an attacking midfielder by Jurgen Klopp a couple of years ago. He would play behind Lucas Barrios and offer much of the same that Fellaini did. He was an aerial and physical presence in deeper parts of the pitch.
Why is this interesting? Why don’t we see this phenomenon happen more often if it can be used so effectively? Tactical trends in football cannot be analyzed in a vacuum; often by looking at past trends can we arrive at meaningful conclusions about today’s styles.
In the past a number 10 was a traditional playmaker. He was clever, a good passer, and creative. He thrived with the ball at his feet between the lines and often found pockets of space between the opposition defense and midfield. Eventually teams began employing dedicated holding midfielders more often to specifically man mark this danger man. These players were strong physically and defensive minded, the ideal to most fans being Claude Makelele. As a result this made a classical playmaker less effective and his style was pushed into deeper or wider roles. You now have players like Andres Iniesta who might fit the mould of a classic 10 but he often plays wide or deep. Fifteen years ago a player like Luka Modric might have been seen as an attacking midfielder who would be played right behind the striker, but today he is seen as one of the world’s best deep lying midfielders. Andrea Pirlo is a player who started out much higher up the pitch in his early career but has since thrived playing in front of the defense.
As football gradually evolved into more emphasis on this fourth band, that is between the lines of midfield (both ahead of and behind the midfield line) new types of players emerged. As the destroyer phased out the central, high creator, he himself got phased out. Why would you need one if there was no one in that space to mark? This development led to smaller, more technical players to play the deep midfield positions. Players like Pirlo, Xavi, and Modric are some world class examples, but it would have been unheard of to see a diminutive player like Leon Britton flourish as a deep lying midfielder in the robust Premier League not long ago.
But once in a while you get a player who has many of the technical abilities to play in an attacking midfield position but who also has the physical characteristics to make you assume he would best be positioned elsewhere. Fellaini is such a player. He came up as a defensive midfielder but David Moyes has used him in a more advanced position at times. Against Manchester United it worked brilliantly. Alex Ferguson’s United are a good example of the evolution of the deep lying midfielder. Before he had a destroyer like Roy Keane in his side but against Everton he went with Paul Scholes and Tom Cleverly, two smaller ball playing midfielders. They helped keep possession, and often this type of midfield arrangement can help one dominate a game. Against Everton, however, they were left exposed by having to deal with Fellaini. Since there was no one in that space to offer a physical presence, Fellaini often easily won aerial duels and helped Everton reset their attack high up the pitch.
It is important to note that you cannot simply install a physical bruiser playing in the hole and expect good things. Fellaini’s first touch is arguably his best attribute and he is very adept at playing in tight midfield spaces, no doubt his career as a deeper central midfielder helping him in this regard. Compare him to Lewandowski, a previously mentioned withdrawn target man. Lewandowski is a complete striker, very clever with combination play and a player with a high work rate. He was well suited to play in midfield because he has the requisite technical ability and footballing intelligence to play such a role. The other thing these players offer, that other strikers turned attacking midfielders might not, is defensive acumen. Fellaini did a good job on both Scholes and Cleverly while Lewandowski used his work rate and physicality to good effort, most notably against Bastian Schweinsteiger in Dortmund’s 3-2 win over Bayern Munich two years ago – and with many sides employing their most creative passer as their deepest midfielder such a player can be a great asset.
Other teams have tried such a tactic at times, from Stoke with Kenwyne Jones to Toronto FC with Maicon Santos. They have delivered mixed results. It is not a role that is beneficial to all styles. A more direct, fast paced team would probably be more adept at playing this way. You remove a quick attacker but you add an aerial threat to direct balls, and as he is not your furthest forward player the target man has someone to flick the ball on to.
There are some players who seem like they would thrive in such a role, Dimitar Berbatov and Zlatan Ibrahimovic are a couple of players who might fit the bill. Both are big, strong on the ball and creative with a fantastic first touch. Yaya Toure is an example of a defensive midfielder who has played effectively in an attacking midfield role by using his athleticism coupled with his technical ability. It seems like there might be many players, like Fellaini and Lewandowski, who are played in a position their bodies are stereotyped to but can prosper in an unfamiliar role.