Manchester United's Brazilian midfielder was just starting to find his feet in the Old Trafford engine room when injury struck yet again. Joel Ramey ponders whether looking to match Tottenham's new Belgian star might help him make more of a splash upon his return...
As the recent Premier League fixture between Reading and Manchester United approached half-time, one player had things other than the preposterously high-scoring first period on his mind.
With the score standing at 4-3 in the visitors' favour after just 44 minutes, their Brazilian midfielder Anderson was forced to limp away from the action and down the tunnel a minute before his team-mates. As he did so, pitch-side television cameras caught him taking a lingering look back at the pitch.
"It's a hamstring, it'll be three or four weeks. It's not serious, but it is a hamstring," Sir Alex Ferguson confirmed in the aftermath. But for Anderson, it's not just "three or four weeks." To him, it's yet another setback.
He'd been down this road before. In fact, it's one that's been well trodden by the Brazilian since he arrived at Manchester United from Porto for a hefty £20 million fee back in 2007. It has become the story of his career – every time he worked his way into the starting line-up, he would get injured. This happened as recently as last season, when he was restricted to just 10 league appearances. Before the start of this season, he thought he'd finally put those injury worries behind him.
"All summer I stayed in Europe to work on my knee," he said back in July. "Now I am 100%. I don't have any more injuries. I don't have a problem. This is a very big season for me."
A very big season indeed, but Anderson would very soon encounter a problem. Despite not being injured, he started the season out of favour, starting just one of United's opening 13 league games – August's 3-2 home win over Fulham. He would have to make do with occasional outings in the Capital One Cup and Champions League.
It would be the former competition in which Anderson would impress – he scored a great goal at home to Newcastle, then grabbed a hat-trick of assists in a scintillating display in the thrilling 5-4 extra-time defeat at Chelsea. Still, he had to bide his time for regular action in the league. With just five substitute appearances in three months, it was abundantly clear that Anderson was some way off getting into Ferguson's first team on a regular basis. But then came a huge turning point.
Struggling QPR, having dispensed with manager Mark Hughes only the day before, had taken a surprise lead at Old Trafford, thanks to a Jamie Mackie strike. Growing more and more restless, Sir Alex Ferguson readied a double substitution in an attempt to muster a typical comeback. With the game approaching the hour mark, Anderson and Javier "Chicharito" Hernandez replaced Ashley Young and Paul Scholes.
United ran out 3-1 winners, with Anderson assisting a Chicharito goal. "I thought Ando won the game for us," Ferguson told MUTV post-game. "His performance was outstanding...He picks himself [for the next game]."
Anderson was given 31 minutes to change that game, more than he'd been afforded in his previous five cameos off the bench combined. And he certainly made the time count. Finally, he had played his way into contention.
Four days later, he made his first league start in three months against West Ham. He put in another impressive display, and therefore started the following game away to Reading, getting back-to-back league starts for the first time in just over 14 months.
And he marked the occasion with a goal, latching on to Ashley Young's pass into the box before rifling a shot between a culpable Adam Federici and his near post. Reading had taken the lead five minutes earlier through Hal Robson-Kanu, but Anderson, somewhat poetically given his recent resurgence, had restored parity. Aside from the goal he was playing well yet again, but then injury struck just before half-time. Given the story of his career, perhaps it was inevitable.
Still, that look back over his shoulder said it all. At that moment Anderson knew that, despite all his hard work and recent rewards, he had been cast right back to square one. At that moment it dawned on him that, in what he sees as a "big season," he has to return stronger than ever if he is to salvage not just his United career, but his entire football career. Unlike the other times, this time he has to hit the ground running. But what can he do differently this time?
He had been thriving in the 4-1-2-1-2 and 4-3-3 formations deployed by Ferguson, but with Antonio Valencia now available and Shinji Kagawa's return imminent, a return to 4-2-3-1 seems likely.
Normally utilised as one of the two deep midfielders, Anderson is yet to shine consistently in that system. In fact, he is yet to shine consistently as a deep midfielder, full stop. Though gifted with both battling and creative abilities, he struggles to impose himself on games when so far away from goal. He tries, but despite famously manhandling Steven Gerrard and pocketing Cesc Fabregas, he's not exclusively a defensive midfielder. Nor is he the type of player who can consistently hit long passes with pinpoint accuracy.
In trying to dictate the game's tempo, he often mishits long passes that either go harmlessly off the field or into an area no team-mate was anywhere near. He's no Paul Scholes and the manner in which they both made their game-changing cameos this season crystallises that.
Robin van Persie's lavish praise for Scholes' impact when coming on against Southampton at St. Mary's earlier this season said it all: "He hit a couple of unbelievable passes over 30 or 40 metres," the hat-trick hero gushed after the game. "With him you are always on your toes because anything can happen with his quality."
United's advanced players were lacking service that day, and Scholes, who came on with United trailing 2-1, had provided just what was needed. Not all of his long passes hit their targets that day, but his intent was enough to give United a different dimension, wake up their attackers, and help the team storm to a late victory.
As for Anderson's cameo versus QPR, Ferguson had this to say: "He took the game by the scruff of the neck and he was so positive and determined in his play."
Anderson didn't look to play long passes then. Instead, he wisely kept his passes short and simple and used his energy and drive to the maximum. He also showed how incisive he could be when allowed to get closer to the box. These are things he hasn't done nearly enough.
"Anderson started off as the new Ronaldinho but he's changed his style of play completely," said TV Globo commentator and FourFourTwo contributor Jon Cotterill. "He's learned to mark. He's bulked up. He's more direct. But he seems to have forgotten his talent and creative gifts."
Perhaps "forgotten" is the wrong word here. After all, Anderson was simply doing what he was told. But it's true that he is yet to find a way to dovetail his defensive, battling qualities with his free-spirited, energetic attacking nature when deep in midfield. Until now. One player provides the perfect example for him to imitate – and he and Anderson have much in common.
Mousa Dembele currently stands as one of the league's best deep-lying midfielders. Only, like Anderson, he didn't start his career there. At AZ Alkmaar and then at Fulham, he was used as a striker or winger. Mark Hughes then deployed him in the hole and finally Martin Jol settled him alongside Danny Murphy in defensive midfield last season. It was then he started to turn in consistent, high quality performances.
Like Anderson, Dembele also had his share of injuries to contend with, particularly in his debut season when he suffered a knee injury that sidelined him for a number of weeks. Even this season, he was fortunate to avoid surgery on a hip injury that had threatened to keep him out for months rather than weeks.
Like Anderson, Dembele is left-footed, has great technique, power, and energy. And, despite their attacking roots, neither has a decent scoring record. The main difference between them is that despite being deployed in what was obviously a role strange to them, Dembele knew how to adapt.
He maintained his desire to attack, but was mindful of his new defensive responsibilities. Against United earlier this season in what proved his last game for Fulham, his all-round style was on magnificent display. While Anderson just sat deep and focused on spreading play out wide, Dembele played short, crisp passes to team-mates around him and drove forward with the ball glued to his feet to influence Fulham's attack on his own. He completed an impressive nine dribbles, but also made an equally laudable eight tackles as he went in on United players, who had 60% possession on the day, to win the ball.
His performance in the 0-0 draw with Lazio at home in the Europa League is also a good example of the Belgian at his well-rounded finest.
Again, collecting the ball from deep and keeping his passes short and safe, he helped his side dominate possession, even getting stuck in to win the ball back. And he used his power and technique to drive forward with real purpose in attack.
In possession of similar qualities, the advice to Anderson is clear: instead of trying to pick out long passes, keep passes short, the ball to feet, and use your power and energy to get United off the back foot and influence their attack.
United were seemingly keen on signing Dembele in the summer, especially off the back of that impressive early-season display at Old Trafford. But the fact they opted not to match his £15 million buy-out clause means Anderson, a year younger than the Belgian, could be afforded the chance to bring a similar style of play to a United midfield that has long been crying out for such quality.
His best position is behind the main striker, but with Wayne Rooney playing there as well as Kagawa, a player United are yet to fully integrate into the side, it's safe to say that any hopes of seeing Anderson reprise that role on a regular basis are dead. He simply has to adapt to his deeper role and by imitating Dembele, he can finally do just that.
Such was the Belgian's impact in midfield that Martin Jol admitted he had to change Fulham's "identity" after losing him to Tottenham on deadline day. Should he change his style to match Dembele's upon his return from injury, Anderson can finally establish his identity in that deeper role and help United finally recover theirs in midfield.
Joel Ramey is a freelance writer focusing on player performance, styles, and emerging talent. He’s been published by Score Media’s Counter Attack blog among other websites and contributes regularly to footyplace.com. He also runs his own site: flixandtrix.com. Follow him on Twitter @FlixandTrix
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