Last night, the news dropped that Marouane Fellaini will miss Everton's next three games through a suspension. Over the weekend, he delivered a headbutt to the chest of Ryan Shawcross, which the referee failed to spot. That meant that The FA could issue retroactive punishment, and they did so quickly. Now, Everton must win points from tough fixtures without their best player.
Fellaini has started in 15 of Everton's 17 Premier League games this season, all in an attacking midfield role behind a lone striker, scoring eight goals and notching three assists. Those who have watched the Toffees frequently this year know that his contribution goes well beyond those numbers. His ability to win 50-50 duels in the air and on the ground against central defenders and defensive midfielders is unparalleled, and he can turn a desperation clearance into a coherent attack like no other player on earth.
In the two games that Fellaini did not start in the Premier League this season, Everton drew 1-1 against a pair of then-relegation battlers, Queens Park Rangers and Norwich City. While the Canaries have since surged into the top half, those are a couple of fixtures that Everton probably expected to win, and they probably would have pulled off a victory on both occasions if their best player was present.
A sample size of two isn't much to go on, but it seems safe to say that Everton's attack is less than dynamic when Fellaini is not in the side. Steven Pienaar seems much more effective starting on the wing and cutting inside than he is playing a No. 10 role, and Nikica Jelavic is a striker with a very limited skill set. He's a pure poacher with very little hold-up or passing skills, who benefits from playing next to a behemoth of a man that creates dangerous situations out of literally nothing.
The next best alternative to Fellaini in the hole is Kevin Mirallas, last year's Greek Super League leading scorer. He started in the hole behind Jelavic in the away draw against Queens Park Rangers and was effective, but was forced into a more conservative role than David Moyes would have liked when Pienaar picked up a silly red card in the 62nd minute. With 10 men, Everton sat on their 1-1 draw and preserved it comfortably.
Mirallas is out through injury, meaning Moyes is likely to turn Pienaar, who moved into the center when Fellaini missed the home draw with Norwich through yellow card accumulation. Sebastien Bassong netted a 90th minute equalizer with a header on a set piece; Everton will miss Fellaini on those, attacking and defensive, as well.
Pienaar, somewhat surprisingly, saw the ball less in the game against Norwich than he did in the following fixture against Arsenal. Even though Everton had 58 percent of possession and Pienaar was a central playmaker in that fixture against the Canaries, he touched the ball 60 times and didn't take a shot. Everton completed 80 percent of their passes in that fixture, as opposed to 75 percent against Arsenal. They also only had 43 percent of possession, but Pienaar touched the ball 70 times and took four shots, from the wing instead of from the center. Fellaini made the difference.
Over the next three matches, while Everton will not have Fellaini and will probably not have Mirallas, Pienaar is going to be asked to perform his normal role and Fellaini's at the same time, because no one's expecting Bryan Oviedo, Apostolos Vellios, Ross Barkley, Magaye Gueye, or any combination of those players to be more than a solid placeholder who gets into the right spots and doesn't screw up.
Not only will Pienaar have to do more, but Jelavic will have to do more as well, and there's no indication that he's anything more with a poacher that has great finishing instincts. Darron Gibson and Leon Osman, a pair of solid midfielders who rarely make mistakes on the ball, but rarely create anything by themselves either, might have to get a bit riskier with their passing if Everton are going to create goals. Does either have the quality to rise to the level of the game's elite deep-lying playmakers? There probably won't be a definitive yes or no answer to that question until they try. Both players have good footballing brains and decent technique, it's just a matter of them executing. With Fellaini -- or even Mirallas -- in front of them, simple was almost always the best option.
If David Moyes just wants a couple of 0-0 draws out of his next two matches against West Ham and Wigan, he'll probably get them. As cynical as it is, getting out of this series of three games -- as a reminder, the third comes against Chelsea -- with two or three points, then trying to chase down Tottenham Hotspur and Arsenal when Fellaini returns isn't a terrible strategy, assuming that Bill Kenwright doesn't ship Fellaini elsewhere during the January transfer window.
Really, does he have much of a choice? With Tony Hibbert and Phil Neville out, along with his best set piece defender in Fellaini, goal prevention is far from a given if Everton play more aggressively to make up for their talisman's absence. Depth has been a problem for the Toffees for a long time, and with four of their top players out, including their top player by a nearly immeasurable distance, there's not much shame in playing for draws.
If Everton get through these next three matches with Tottenham still in their sights, they've done well. They can still grab a top-four spot and qualify for Champions League, but dropped points over the next three games are a near certainty.