Nikica Jelavic: Tactical Analysis of the Everton Forward and His Loss of Form

Matt JonesFeatured ColumnistFebruary 27, 2013

Jelavic has endured a couple of frustrating months
Jelavic has endured a couple of frustrating monthsMichael Regan/Getty Images

It finally looked as though Everton had found their goalscorer in Nikica Jelavic. Having signed from Rangers for a measly £5 million, the Croatian hit-man looked like an absolute snip. Goals and adulation followed.

Eleven in his first 16 games to be precise. 

But now, its a completely different story for Everton and for Jelavic. The man who was the best one-touch finisher in the country now cuts a frustrated figure lacking in confidence.

In Tuesday’s FA Cup replay against League One strugglers Oldham Athletic, Jelavic drew yet another blank. Now he has netted just twice in 20 appearances for the Toffees. His last goal against top-flight opposition came on Dec. 9 against Tottenham.

For a player who looked like such an accomplished forward not long ago, this is a pretty dramatic collapse. It's not quite Torres-esque but still startling.

So what is the difference in Jelavic this season? Is it all about him, or is it about the way in which Everton have played to him? Something is clearly not right.

The first issue is a sort of catch-22 situation. Jelavic has undoubtedly improved his work-rate since he has been at the club. In his early days at Everton, he was labored in his pressing and his running into the channels was minimal. 

Now, much in keeping with what David Moyes demands from his players, Jelavic is everywhere. He presses, works wide and runs down lost causes. The Croatian has become much more of a "team player."

But with Jelavic operating as the first line of defense for the Toffees, Everton have lost something from him.

As bizzare as it may sound, at the moment Everton need the lazier Jelavic back.

The player that we saw last season who would loiter with dangerous intent in the penalty area. The player who would put the massive majority of his efforts into clever movement to bamboozle defenders. The player who was an out-and-out goalscorer.

It is cliché, but Jelavic is trying too hard at the moment. He drifts into wide areas looking to see more of the ball. That is not where Everton need to see him.

Who is going to be in the box to get on the end of a Leighton Baines cross or a Marouanne Fellaini pass? Certainly not Jelavic if he is out on the wing.

Last campaign, Tim Cahill was the man who did a lot of the pressing in forward areas for Everton, allowing Jelavic to rest up and save his energy for his goalscoring exploits. Fellaini has been deployed in the "Cahill position" since the Aussie’s departure and whilst the Belgian is certainly not a lazy player, his work rate is not at the same level as Cahill’s.

Cahill was a constant pest to central defenders with his persistent closing down and all-round aggresive attitude. Everton don't have anyone who can do that quite as well at the moment. The Aussie scared opposition defences with his battling qualities and aerial prowess. 

Moyes likes at least one of his forwards to press the centre backs when the opposition are in possession. Cahill did this so well for years at the expense of strikers like Louis Saha, Yakubu and Victor Anichebe—none of whom were the hardest of runners.

Now it looks as though Moyes has tasked Jelavic as opposed to Fellaini as being the main presser, which he is doing well. But is this wasting the talents of a man who could use his energy better elsewhere? 

Absolutely. But this is in keeping with the rise to prominence of his fellow strike partner.

The emergence of Marouanne Fellaini as a forward player and Everton’s "target man" has directly coincided with the loss of form for Jelavic.

As Everton’s most potent attacking weapon this season, the majority of Everton’s play has been channelled through the Belgian. Don’t get me wrong, The Toffees have got the ball down and played some good stuff this season. But in recent weeks when Everton have struggled, they have gone a lot more direct into Fellaini. 

For a player who doesn’t really relish the physical battle, this has been to Jelavic’s detriment.

It would be fair to say that he has not contended with this aerial approach all too well. The Croatian's best moments in an Everton shirt have come when low crosses have been pulled back to him in the box. Running onto the ball and finishing first time is his bread and butter.

Despite his height and physical stature, Fellaini isn’t really someone a striker can run off.

The Belgian never really flicks the ball on, due to his remarkable ability to bring the ball down on his chest with his back to goal. For this reason, he is often much more likely to bring other midfielders into play as opposed to turning and feeding it into Jelavic.

Sure Fellaini has been superb, but Everton need to strike that balance between their vibrant eye-catching play and their direct football. The balance that was so evident earlier in the campaign. Only then will we see the best of Jelavic again. He is certainly a player worth trying to get the best of.

There are some fans who say Jelavic was just a flash in the pan. One to file away in the Amir Zaki category of forward.

I don’t think so. Jelavic has never really been a "hit and hope" striker in the way that a lot of these one-season wonders tend to be. Some of his one-touch finishing was sublime last year. He clearly has class in abundance, which doesn’t disappear overnight.

Jelavic will benefit massively as Seamus Coleman and Kevin Mirallas reestablish themselves in the first XI. A lot of Everton’s frustrations recently are down to the Baines-Pienaar axis being targeted by the opposition and a right-side devoid of any real creative spark.

With Mirallas and Coleman back on the right flank, Everton’s style of play will improve no end. In turn, this should help bring the best back out of their Croatian striker. Both Mirallas and Coleman are extremely direct in their running and love getting to the byline to pull crosses back.

Here we can see in games against Southampton and Aston Villa, during a period in which Everton were very much at the peak of their form, plenty of low crosses came into the Croatian. He scored three goals in these two matches. 

This has been lacking in recent weeks, with Jelavic either working the channels or losing out in aerial battles from long balls forward.

If Jelavic can keep the ever-improving Victor Anichebe out of the side, with creativity on both flanks, expect to see him back among the goals very soon. Everton want something to show for a season has seen so much promise, and this would provide a major boost for the league and cup run-ins.

Do you have any thoughts on Jelavic's recent slump in form? Let me know in the comments section or on Twitter @MattJFootball


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