Anderson Luís de Abreu Oliveira; thankfully just Anderson or ‘Ando’ to most. If recent reports are to be believed a United career characterised by fitness concerns and unfulfilled potential has seemingly come to an end. Even if the reports are premature, an appearance record which has moved from drastically diminishing towards the end of Ferguson’s reign, to virtually non-existent under Moyes certainly suggests that the Brazilian’s time with United is up. It would be a stretch to argue that Ando’s on-field talents will be sorely missed but the tale of this unrealised talent, a reported £20m acquisition from FC Porto, is not as tragic as many may believe. Beyond the obvious misgivings lie a number of redeeming qualities which have not only extended what could understandably have been a much shorter career with the club, but will leave the midfielder popular amongst the United faithful as he embarks upon pastures new.
Following a few somewhat brief flirtations with work permit issues, Anderson signed for Manchester United on 1st July 2007, becoming only the second Brazilian to join United’s ranks after the easily forgotten Kleberson. His debut came in a 2-0 pre-season friendly win over Doncaster Rovers, where he played 45 minutes in the no.10 role behind another promising young talent at the time and current Cardiff City striker, Frazier Campbell. It was an all too rare opportunity in the free role behind the striker for a player who had become accustomed to the position at his former club. Now, after 179 appearances, 9 goals, 4 Premier League titles, 1 UEFA Champions League, 2 League cups, 2 FA Community Shields and 1 FIFA Club World Cup with the Red Devils, the Brazilian looks set to leave with the unfortunate shadow of what might have been.
But the blame for what is perceived to have been an underachieving career to date, and the disappointment that a truly top class midfield general did not emerge does not sit solely on Anderson’s own welcome mat. The player arrived with unwelcome comparisons to the exceptional Ronaldinho and was then further burdened with the regrettably all too common tag as heir to Paul Scholes’ midfield throne. Add this to a large transfer fee and, well… no pressure then, lad. Perhaps most telling, though, was the fact that the youngster arrived having played the majority of his career in an advanced midfield role.
It is not uncommon or, for that matter, necessarily unwise for central midfield players to begin their careers and undergo their development in more advanced areas of the field. Football is littered with top class central midfield players who have benefitted from opportunities higher up the pitch, particularly in roles behind the striker. It is where a young Paul Scholes began, where Gerrard experienced many of his best years feeding off the then outstanding Torres, where Lampard built his reputation as one of the finest goalscoring midfielders the game has ever seen and where, more recently, the likes of Modric, Wilshere, Fabregas and Barkley have learnt their trade. It is what United hope to do with Nick Powell, another player frustratingly charged with the hopes that he will develop into Paul Scholes’ successor. So the evidence is unquestionably in place to demonstrate that certain players can adapt well and grow into deeper roles, and that was the plan in Ferguson’s mind for Anderson. Unfortunately, it was one that never came to fruition.
In fairness, there were times when the Anderson experiment of a deeper, box-to-box role looked like it may be beginning to pay off, and to paint the Samba star’s exploits in the centre of the park as a complete failure would undoubtedly be misleading. The physical attributes were always there, good strength and a turn of pace. He was magnificent up against Cesc Fabregas and Arsenal at the emirates in November 2007 and again against Gerrard and Liverpool in December. More promising performances followed and the young Brazilian was often thwarted by ill-timed injuries. He played a prominent role in the reds’ 2008 Champions League triumph, featuring in 9 of the 13 games and who could forget his penalty which followed John Terry’s infamous slip. Ando blasted the ball straight down the middle and then waved his arms vigorously and stared intently, working up the crowd. For many it was the moment that belief of European glory really began to set in.
Further career highlights followed from the spot when the midfield maestro again converted what this time turned out to be the winning penalty against Spurs to win the 2009 League Cup. A few later glimpses of potential, notably as part of a young, fresh partnership alongside Tom Cleverley at the beginning of the 2011/12 campaign were displayed, but ultimately Anderson has failed to deliver on the promise expected, not less demanded, at a club like United.
It is not beyond reason, then, given the price tag involved to consider signing the Brazilian as a mistake, but it was not a huge one. There are a number of circumstances that perhaps mitigate the true extent of the error made when investing such a large amount of money in a player who has ultimately failed to deliver.
The negatives are all too obvious. Despite the potential relayed to Ferguson by the club’s scouts who believed Anderson to be one of the best prospects in the world, the player has never quite demonstrated real world-class ability at Old Trafford. The problems surrounding the midfielder’s weight and fitness issues are well documented and the club will certainly make a substantial financial loss on the player. Arguably the biggest error, though, was to believe that Anderson would develop into the box-to-box midfielder that all around him were desperate for him to become.
United’s tactical makeup rarely accommodates a midfielder in the no.10 role, Kagawa is a pertinent example, and barring the centre backs, the two central midfielders often deployed are usually found to be the deepest players on the pitch in controlled periods of possession. The two in the centre of the park are often tasked to orchestrate from deep with a full picture in front of them, spraying balls out wide and occasionally arriving late into the box. That is simply not Anderson’s game and the Brazilian is far more comfortable higher up the pitch, manoeuvring the ball in tight situations with short, sharp passes. In that respect, as much as the decision to attempt to transform Anderson was an error in judgment, the Samba star was equally unfortunate.
It is hoped that Powell will not suffer a similar fate and his contrasting attributes to those of the Brazilian lead to cautious optimism. As Wigan’s current top scorer the clamour for his return is understandable, but also mislead. Powell, like Anderson, has played the majority of his youth football higher up the pitch and Anderson has become a pertinent example that adapting to a deeper role is far from easy. A currently struggling United are certainly not the right environment for a young Powell to develop into a deeper role and calls for his return are premature.
That being said, just as with Powell, the potential was always there with Anderson. This was a player who as a youngster shone for Brazil at the 2005 U17 World Cup, winning the Adidas Golden Ball for most valuable player in the process. Had begun his career at Porto exceptionally well, despite the interruption of a broken leg following his move from Gremio, with whom he had been since the age of 5, and a man who was widely reported to be courted by Barcelona at the time. In that sense what ultimately appears to have been a mistake, is certainly a justifiable one. Moreover, United are a club famed for their development of young talent but there are no certainties when dealing with potential.
Nevertheless, without taking a chance on the Andersons and the Bebes, you don’t get the Ronaldos and the Januzajs. All the signs were there that this young prospect would develop into a fantastic talent, he is only 25, he may still prove his ability, and it is always worth taking the risk. In reality United were probably the wrong club at the wrong time for Anderson and had he continued to develop in his preferred role commentators may be speaking of a different player entirely. But taking a chance on Anderson, even for an inflated price, was the right thing to do.
Anderson has made more appearances for the Old Trafford outfit than any other South American in the club’s history and has remained a positive influence in the dressing room, if not on the pitch, and that should not be belittled. The Brazilian has an infectious character and is certainly popular. Any great manager will tell you that good characters are essential in any dressing room and whilst personality is certainly no basis on which to keep a player at a club of Manchester United’s size, one only has to look to the footage of Anderson dancing after the Champions League final in 2008, or the way he assumes the mantle as the butt of all jokes whilst on tour to see that he has had a positive effect. The midfielder, despite never quite delivering on the pitch, remains firmly popular with the fans too, not least for his song which remains a favourite amongst the terraces. Anderson’s lack of goals ironically further endeared him to the fans and rightly or wrongly, there was always a different kind of enjoyment when the Brazilian hit the net.
It is a shame in many ways, then, to see Anderson move on. Unfortunately for the midfielder, the sadness stems from his character as opposed to his footballing ability. Stuart Mathieson of the Manchester Evening News understands that Anderson is:
“wavering on a move to Italy this month and may prefer to keep his options open until the summer”.
( Accessed 13th Jan 2014 at: Powell return, Baines in, Anderson out – Stu Mathieson’s guide to United’s transfer policy )
Nevertheless, it is surely not long before Ando departs the north-west. It is hoped that Anderson’s career at United will not deter the club from taking similar gambles on potential in the transfer market in the future. Developing young talent is a hallmark of the club and one that should be actively pursued in terms of transfer strategy. Equally however, and with unfortunate recent parallels emanating from the acquisition of Kagawa, it is also hoped that the club are learning that not all players are capable of adapting to unfamiliar positions. In this regard it is important that Moyes settles on a system and buys accordingly.
Anderson deserves praise for performances where lack of ability was often compensated by commitment and enthusiasm. United’s desire to transform the midfielder certainly affected his development and for that reason there is sympathy. Whilst perhaps popular for the wrong reasons, the Samba star remains popular all the same. Whether for his hair, his lack of goals or his mannerisms, he will be missed.
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