Anderson: what might have been and what he could still become

Amid the furore of Juan Mata’s dramatic arrival at Manchester United, the Spaniard’s predecessor in the number eight shirt exited Old Trafford without so much as an eyebrow raised. The scarcely publicised departee was eight-time Brazilian cap Anderson, who joined Fiorentina on loan for the remainder of the season. By the end of his United career, the charismatic midfielder had become a figure of fun; a flop consigned to the sparsely populated category entitled “Sir Alex Ferguson’s transfer failures”, keeping company as esteemed as Eric Djemba-Djemba, Kleberson and Liam Miller. However, Anderson’s is a less uncomplicated story.

In 2004, having scored on his senior debut for home-town club Gremio at just sixteen, Anderson’s inaugural season ended in a shock relegation to Serie B. Despite the early set-back, the youngster stuck with the club, and wrote himself into its folklore at the end of the following season. He scored the Porto Alegre side’s promotion-clinching goal, in an incredible 1-0 away win over Nautico. (I’ve highlighted just why that result was so incredible here)

The 17-year old’s remarkable 2005 continued with the June announcement that he had signed a pre-contract agreement with recently-deposed European Champions FC Porto coming a matter of months before he travelled to Peru to represent Brazil in the U17 World Championship. During the competition, Anderson scored two goals (including one in the 4-3 semi-final defeat of Turkey – see below) in Los Pentacampeões passage to the final. In the tournament’s culmination, he was stretchered off after 15 minutes (at 0-0) as his countrymen suffered a 3-0 defeat at the hands of Mexico. Nevertheless, Anderson’s displays in the Number 10 role earned him comparisons to former Gremio legend Ronaldinho, and the Golden Ball, awarded to the tournament’s best player. The competition’s official review sees the maestro described as a “playmaker with a seemingly inexhaustible box of tricks” serving to underline his status, at the time, as one of world football’s hottest properties.

January 2006 saw the completion of Anderson’s £5.8million move to Porto, which only escaped FIFA’s regulations regarding players under eighteen because his widowed mother, Doralice de Oliveira, relocated to Portugal with her son. The Brazilian made his debut two months later; the first of three appearances as he set about nailing down a starting place in Porto’s title-winning side. The following year, despite missing five months with a broken leg, ‘Ando’ made 21 starts; scoring twice as he helped ensure that the Primeira Liga stayed at the Estadio do Dragao. The campaign also gave the 18-year old his first taste of the UEFA Champions League and saw him attract the attention of one SIr Alex Ferguson, due in no small part to an impressive performance against the Red Devils in a pre-season friendly.

While the exact transfer fee remains officially undisclosed, it is estimated that the amount spent to bring Anderson to Old Trafford (announced as part of a joint swoop including Nani) worked out at around £1million per start for Porto. With the exception of the reckless purchase of Bébé, it is rare for Ferguson to sign a player given such a paucity of evidence to on which to judge them. This serves to indicate the precocious nature of Anderson’s talent, as does the fact that the Glaswegian demanded the sanction of such a hefty transfer fee to beat off fierce competition (most notably Real Madrid and Chelsea) to his signature. Shortly after the move was announced, United’s new recruit made his senior debut for Brazil, in another defeat to Mexico, followed by his first start, in a victory over Chile.

Despite facing competition from Michael Carrick, Paul Scholes, Darren Fletcher and Owen Hargreaves for a starting berth, Anderson made 38 appearances in his debut season, as United twice saw off Chelsea to clinch a Premier League and Champions’ League double. The Brazilian was perceived as a liability towards the end of his time at Old Trafford but the  2007-08 campaign saw him convert a sudden-death penalty amid the drama of the rain-soaked final shoot-out in Moscow (a role for which he was specifically introduced) and perform admirably against the toughest of midfield counter-parts. Most notably, Anderson’s displays against Steven Gerrard and Cesc Fabregas were crucial as his new employers enjoyed vital wins over Liverpool (home and away) and Arsenal respectively.

Such impressive displays earned the teenager a place in Dunga’s 18-man squad for the 2008 Beijing Olympics. He was handed the illustrious number 7 shirt, in which made five appearances, scoring once, as Brazil picked up the bronze medal. More was to come though, and December 2008 brought Anderson’s third experience of a global tournament; he played 88 minutes as United saw off Ecuador’s LDU Quito to add The FIFA Club World Cup to their already bounteous haul of trophies.

Being the recipient of Community Shield, Club World Cup, Premier League and Champions’ League winner’s medals represents a sensational calendar year for any player, let alone one barely out of his teenage years, but Anderson topped it off with individual glory. After having made a further six international appearances, on 6 December, he was crowned UEFA Golden Boy. This accolade is awarded to Europe’s best performer under the age of 21, as voted by 30 journalists whose main focus is on the international stage.

There are many an indication of the award’s prestige. Its five previous recipients? Rafael van der Vaart, Wayne Rooney, Lionel Messi, Cesc Fabregas and Sergio Agüero. The men Anderson saw off to scoop the award? Juan Mata, Mesut Ozil and Gareth Bale, to name just three. Moveover, the latest name to be carved into the trophy was Paul Pogba; the man many see best-equipped to resolve Manchester United’s midfield headache.

Anderson’s promise continued into 2009, and in March he again came off the bench to score in a trophy-securing shoot-out. After entering the match, which finished 0-0, on 57 minutes, the Samba starlet netted the winning penalty as United clinched the Carling Cup by beating Tottenham Hotspur 4-1 on spot-kicks. The composure he showed in sending Heurelho Gomes the wrong way proved a further indication of the midfielder’s maturity and supreme confidence, which was evident again in United’s next encounter with a North London side.

Anderson received a rapturous reception on his first return to the Estadio do Dragao, where he helped United reach the Champions’ League semi-finals for the third successive season. The professional 1-0 win over Porto set up a semi-final encounter with Arsene Wenger’s Arsenal. Despite having spent much of his United career to date in a deeper midfield role, Ferguson selected his Brazilian starlet in the number 10 berth he occupied in his youth, shunting Wayne Rooney out to the left flank. The decision was justified, as a John O’Shea strike gave the Red Devils a slender 1-0 to take into the tie’s second leg at Emirates Stadium.

It was that April night on North London, having started in a flag-waving blaze of optimism for the home fans, on which Anderson produced one of his best ever performances in United colours. He again outshone Fabregas, with his constant pressing and purposeful dribbling playing a major part as Sir Alex Ferguson’s men stunned Arsenal, marauding to a 3-1 victory. United had booked their place in the Rome finale in the most spectacular of fashions, where they would face Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona.

However, the game that saw United utterly dominated in a 2-0 defeat, also served to damage Anderson’s relationship with manager Sir Alex Ferguson. In his recent autobiography, Ferguson describes how the Brazilian “only attempted five passes in the whole half”, before being replaced by Carlos Tevez at half time. Events in the aftermath of the final suggest that 45 minutes of Anderson’s 36th appearance of the season were enough to rupture Ferguson’s trust in him. Although, in reality, there were many greater contributing factors to the Catalan master class.

Ferguson’s decision to replace the suspended Darren Fletcher’s energy with the aging legs of Ryan Giggs, when he knew United would spend the majority of their night on the back foot, was bizarre at best, fool-hardy at worst. The switch left Anderson and Michael Carrick at the mercy of the masterful triad of Sergio Busquets, Xavi and Andreas Iniesta, as Barcelona overwhelmed United. Moreover, Ferguson’s book also reveals that his charges spent the night before the final in a “shambles” of a hotel, while certain players, most notably Carlos Tevez, were showing signs of prioritsing the value of the individual over that of the team.

Nevertheless, Anderson’s was among the reputations that suffered most as a result of United’s humbling in Rome. Despite finally scoring his first United goal in a 3-1 win at White Hart Lane and performing well in United’s captivating 4-3 derby triumph over “Noisy Neighbours” Manchester City, the following season saw his starting opportunities grow more and more limited. Ferguson lamented the 21-year old’s poor showing in a 2-1 Carling Cup reverse at Eastlands, which led to reports that he went AWOL, missing training to return to Brazil. After being hit with a fine reported to be in the region of £80,000, Anderson didn’t play for over a month. Just 20 minutes into his return to action against West Ham United, a knee ligament injury ended his season, as well as any hopes of boarding the plane to South Africa for the forthcoming World Cup.

So the Brazilian embarked upon the 2010-11 season not only trying to recover from the second major injury of his career, but also attempting to win back the personal and professional trust of his manager. Set against this difficult back-drop, Anderson’s haul of 4 goals from 30 appearances appears to represent a decent season. However, despite a four-and-a-half-year contract extension being signed in December, it was clear that Ferguson still wouldn’t rely on the midfield man. Michael Carrick and Ryan Giggs become the Scot’s first choice central pairing, and Wayne Rooney’s demand to be deployed in the Number 10 role was finally met. This lack of faith was never more evident than when United again faced Barcelona in the European Cup final, this time at Wembley.

Guardiola’s side were even more formidable than two years previously, but Ferguson again selected Giggs in the engine room, where he was a passenger. His inability to deal with the speed of the Catalan’s movement was exemplified by his manager’s decision to move Ji Sung Park inside to partner Carrick, before the half-hour mark. However, unlike Anderson two years previously, the Welshman remained on the pitch for the entire match; the only midfield change coming with under 15 minutes remaining, when the “retiring” Paul Scholes replaced Michael Carrick. Some may say that Ferguson was never going to withdraw his most trusted lieutenant in a game of such magnitude, but the Scot has built his reputation on prioritising the needs of the team over individual sentiments. It’s not as if Anderson was on poor form, either; he’d bagged three goals in his last two appearances.

Question marks were also beginning to be asked over Anderson’s stamina. 8 of his 30 appearances came from the substitutes bench, and he failed to complete 90 minutes in 14 of his 22 starts. Nevertheless, the Brazilian put in an fantastic second-half performance alongside Tom Cleverley as United overturned a 2-0 half-time deficit to clinch the Community Shield from under the noses of those increasingly noisy neighbours. The pair’s exceptional showing at Wembley convinced Sir Alex Ferguson to select the pair as first choice going into the 2011-12 season.

Anderson started the first eight games of the season, as United played their best football of the post-Ronaldo era. The Red Devils came out on the right side of surprisingly open home encounters with Arsenal and Chelsea, winning 8-2 and 3-1 respectively, showing the signs that the “you score three, we’ll score four” mantra might be making a come-back at Old Trafford. The style was not dissimilar to the one for which Manuel Pellegrini’s current Manchester City side have drawn wide-spread praise. Ironically, however, it was a game against the blue half of Manchester that convinced Sir Alex Ferguson to adopt a more pragmatic approach.

On 23rd October, Anderson lined up alongside Darren Fletcher as Roberto Mancini brought his table-topping charges to Old Trafford, and Mario Balotelli capped a dominant first-half display with a goal, as City led 1-0 at the break. Two minutes after half-time, Jonny Evans was shown a red-card for a professional foul, and Balotelli and his team-mates sensed blood. Within minutes, with Anderson since having been replaced by Javier Hernandez, Sergio Aguero had put his side 3-0 ahead, stunning the Theatre of Dreams into silence. The mood around the ground was so despondent that Darren Fletcher’s 81st minute strike was greeted by almost manic celebrations; the Stretford End faithful optimistically setting about inspiring their side to the mother of all come-backs.

The optimism was to be swiftly destroyed. The Noisy Neighbours made one hell of a racket, netting three stoppage time goals, as United’s 10 men left themselves horrifically exposed. The 6-1 scoreline naturally infuriated Ferguson, who always emphasised the importance of his side’s response to a set-back, and he set about finding the solutions. Despite publicly lamenting senior players Rio Ferdinand and Patrice Evra, both men were included in the squad for the next Premier League match, at Goodison Park, while Anderson was omitted entirely. Yet again, the Brazilian suffered in the aftermath of a humilating defeat, in which there were much greater failings elsewhere.

Further frustration ensued with another knee injury sustained at home to Otelul Galati ruling Anderson out until the New Year’s Eve clash with relegation-bound Blackburn Rovers. The Brazilian was introduced as a half-time substitute as United crashed to a humiliating 3-2 home defeat to Steve Kean’s side. Also on the bench was Paul Pogba, who recently expressed his “disgust” at being overlooked that day, despite injuries forcing Sir Alex Ferguson to select right-back Rafael and utility man Ji Sung Park as his midfield duo. The Frenchman’s is another tale of Ferguson’s inability to develop talented youngsters in order to rectify his side’s deficiencies in the centre of midfield; a failure for which David Moyes is currently paying the price.

Anderson only made three more first-team appearances before the end of the season and, while injuries played a part, Ferguson’s decision to tempt Paul Scholes out of retirement was extremely telling. The Scot insisted at the time that the move did not represent a backwards move for the club, but what kind of message must it have sent to players such as Anderson and Pogba? He was rightly heralded for his immense faith in young players throughout his tenure at United, but Ferguson’s decision to recall Scholes only served to block the first-team progression of talented youngsters. Moreover, The Ginger Prince’s return didn’t even secure a Premier League title defence. Mancini’s Noisy Neighbours turned the volume up to eleven on that most dramatic of final days; Sergio Aguero’s last-gasp goal securing the title on goal difference and leaving United to rue that ten-goal swing incurred the previous October.

With Ferguson preferring the experience of Scholes alongside Michael Carrick, Anderson’s scant reward for not following Paul Pogba out of the Old Trafford exit door was often a place on the bench. His starting opportunities mainly came in the League Cup, during which he impressed. He opened the scoring as United defeated their Newcastle namesakes 2-1, to set up a fourth round tie at Stamford Bridge. Handed another rare start, the midfield maestro was exceptional; he set up all three United goals, before being replaced, as Chelsea won through 5-4, after extra time.

That thrilling display on Halloween night was rewarded with seven apperances in November, most notably a 30 minute cameo at home to Queens Park Rangers, where Anderson “changed the game”, according to Ferguson. He was introduced with United 1-0 down; within 12 minutes, they led3-1A stunning goal, as Reading were defeated 4-3, showed further signs of a resurgence, before injury again intervened. A hamstring problem forced Anderson off before half-time, ruling him out for six weeks.

The play-maker marked his return to first-team action with a sumptuous through-ball to provide Javier Hernandez’s winning goal, as West Ham United were eliminated from the FA Cup, at the second time of asking. However, Tom Cleverley established himself alongside Carrick and Anderson was used sparingly as United cantered to their twentieth league title. His fragmented game-time meant he was unable to reattain the required level of match fitness, and jibes about his weight came to a head following his appearance in a 1-0 home defeat at the hands of Chelsea; a game in which he was again substituted.

The perception that Anderson is overweight has been widely documented by his critics but the issue is complex. As is common in the modern-day game, Manchester United employ a swathe of medical staff, who are charged with ensuring every player is in optimum physical condition, throughout the season. As such, every squad member is likely to be given a specific regime; starting in pre-season and detailing how to maintain fitness as the months roll on. If Anderson wasn’t following his, how did he survive for so long under Sir Alex Ferguson, world-renowned for his uncompromisable demand for professionalism? How could he have survived eleven transfer windows, if he wasn’t doing everything in his power to improve his fitness?

Therefore, it is necessary to look at the other factors affecting the player’s physical conditioning. It seems ludicrous to suggest that United’s medical staff didn’t piece together a suitable plan to furnish the Brazilian with the physical attributes to allow his technical ones to shine. However, the fact is that Anderson has been substituted in a staggering 51 of his 70 Premier League starts. Obviously, a proportion of these withdrawals can be attributed to tactical reasons, but others, such as his early exit (albeit in a different competition) following his assist-hat-trick at Stamford Bridge, point to an underlying problem with stamina. There have never been suggestions that Anderson was unprofessional in his approach to his fitness; not even in Ferguson’s memoirs, where the plagued Owen Hargreaves’ professionalism was called into question. Furthermore, the December 2010 contract extension would surely not have been signed if Ferguson had any lingering doubts over his player’s commitment. Therefore, the Scot and his medical staff have to take a substantial proportion of blame for Anderson’s failure to consistently complete matches, which has hamstrung his career at United.

Having gone the distance in Sir Alex Ferguson’s farewell match, that 5-5 draw at the Hawthorns, Anderson featured in all eight of new manager David Moyes’ friendly matches, in preparation for the current campaign. The former Everton boss’s pre-season regime was reportedly the most intense seen at United for years, with Wayne Rooney among the players to acknowledge the change, but the 25-year old’s fitness was obviously deemed up to the task, Moyes having acknowledged his new club’s need for improvement in the middle of the park.

Once the season began, the midfielder’s first-team opportunities have been as limited as they’ve ever been, but this most recent snub must surely have been the most galling, United’s two most experienced midfielders, Darren Fletcher and Michael Carrick, have missed large stretches of the season through injury, while the form of Tom Cleverley and £27.5million signing Marouane Fellaini has been turgid. More concerning still must have been Moyes’ frequent selections of centre-back Phil Jones and 40 year-old Ryan Giggs in midfield, in a bid to improve the fortunes of his under-performing side. United have been crying out for an energetic midfielder this season; one who can destroy opposition attacks then drive the side forward at pace. Anderson, given time to rediscover his 2008 form, would have fitted every requirement, but was consistently overlooked. The Brazilian maestro’s first league start of the season saw him replaced by Fellaini; the move was a microcosm of Moyes’ long-term vision.

He may have become a joke figure, the embodiment of United’s laughable failure to meet expectations under their new manager, but there should be little doubting the qualities Anderson will bring to his new employers. If La Viola can succeed where United consistently failed, ensuring he can regularly complete 90 minutes, while steering him clear of injury, this loan move may see the Brazilian’s career begin to hit the heights that his early exploits promised. Indications are that both clubs (Anderson claims he was misquoted in response to reports that he claimed many United players want to leave the club) want to turn the current temporary arrangement into something more long-term. However, Anderson’s exuberant personality, along with dynamic playing style, vast passing range and burst of pace mean that a run of games in Florence should see David Moyes reconsider his position.

By Sam Preston – Manchester United fan – @UnitedAnalysis/http://unitedanalysis.wordpress.com/