Conventional wisdom would hold that Paul Scholes, one of the greatest playmakers of all-time, was the most accomplished midfielder on the field when Everton played Manchester United on Monday. New United recruit Shinji Kagawa was surely the most technically gifted. And Tom Cleverley, playing alongside the aforementioned two, has to be one of the hottest young midfielders in the game.
Yet all of those claims, while underpinned by merit, would sell short another man, playing for the opposition.
Because Fellaini is the most dominant midfielder in the English Premier League. Not the best, not the most talented, but the most capable of swaying the outcome of a game. There, it’s been said.
Entering his fifth season for Everton at just 24 years of age, Fellaini is surely the league’s most underrated player, working, naturally, for the league’s most underrated club. Fellaini, who was born to Moroccan parents in the forgettable working-class Etterbeek neighborhood of Brussels, is most easily described as an old-fashioned box-to-box midfielder.
But then that too, is to sell him short.
He is, in fact, part target man, part ball winner, part attacking midfielder and part wig model. It’s that mound of hair that makes him distinctive, forming a giant afro, which bobs along as he rushes from challenge to challenge or collapses temporarily when he heads the ball. Yet for “The Perminator”, it’s his combination of skill, length and strength that makes him remarkable.
At a very noticeable pre-hair six-foot-five – he is usually surrounded by a gaggle of midfielders who couldn’t see over a six-foot wall on the tips of their toes – Fellaini is as deft a technician as players half his size. Yet in spite of his play and appearance, he is somehow overlooked. In conversations about the game’s best midfielders, he is seldom mentioned.
This is Fellaini’s historical plight. His father, Abdellatif, played professionally as a goalkeeper in the 1970s and settled in Belgium. Marouane joined the Anderlecht academy when he was seven but was put on a team for lowly-regarded prospects. So at 10 he left and bounced between three more clubs, looking for appreciation for his unorthodox game, until, finally, he signed with Standard Liège at 17 in 2004.
He made the first squad in 2006 and by 2007 was a target for Manchester United, Real Madrid, Bayern Munich, Tottenham Hotspur and Aston Villa. He held off on a move to United and signed a new contract. The next summer, having just won Standard’s first league title in 25 years alongside U.S. defender Oguchi Onyewu, he was sold to Everton for some $25 million, a Toffee and Belgian record.
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Always rated but never fully appreciated, due partly to several long-term injuries, Monday’s 1-0 upset win over United was a coming-out party, of sorts, more or less in the making since Fellaini walked away from Anderlecht 14 years ago.
Everton’s inexhaustible pillar in a frenetic, hard-fought game, Fellaini played in the hole behind striker Nikica Jelavic. His performance elucidated why Everton was happy to let Tim Cahill, the long-time incumbent of that position, leave for the New York Red Bulls.
Using his hold-up play to enable chances for teammates – and himself, like a first-half run by the back line that resulted in a dink off the post – but distributing and covering ground on defense too, Fellaini was immense long before the 57th minute, when he scored the game’s only goal. Even though the entire stadium knew who the corner kick would be aimed towards, Fellaini cut towards the first post, casually vaulted over Michael Carrick, and cushioned the ball low into the net with his luscious curls. He celebrated by demonstratively running his forearm over his ‘fro.
He stole the show on a night when two hugely hyped United signings, Kagawa and Robin van Persie – total fee $65 million – made their debuts and was substituted off to a raucous ovation and adoring embraces from teammates in the 92nd minute.
Fellaini is a secret hiding in plain view no longer. The word, like his hair, is out there.