Anderson’s career at Manchester United has been inconsistent. He made just ten appearances last season, less than half of the twenty four he made after joining the club in 2007, and has struggled to hold down a first team place. He arrived as a tricky flair player, slight in build but fast, agile and keen to take players on. Today he plays a more conservative role.
Anderson has been shaped into a powerful, intelligent passing midfielder. It’s different to his former role, and involves a more refined skill set. Before he relied on his raw ability and looked a traditional Brazilian midfielder. Now he plays with maturity and vision. I believe this is what Alex Ferguson saw in him, and this is how United have developed him.
NB: Stats Vs Reading not included as article was written before the game.
The Scholes mould
After watching Anderson several times this season, it struck me what a different player he’d become. He was sitting deeper, curbing his enthusiasm to bomb forward, and distributing exquisitely. It reminded me a little of watching Paul Scholes.
Nowhere was this more evident than in United’s League Cup match against Chelsea. Anderson started the game in centre midfield and was the centre piece of United’s game plan. He provided three assists, made four key passes and received man of the match for his performance.
Anderson doesn’t pass or receive the ball as much as Scholes, but he certainly has the ability and over the last few seasons his distribution and vision has improved. Scholes is one of the best passers in the world, so lets take a look at some of his stats this season compared to Anderson’s.
The table below shows each players passing statistics in the Premier League this season. Scholes has had more pitch time than Anderson, but when Scholes has been rested, Ferguson has turned to Anderson to replace him – a big ask for any player.
[table id=121 /]
Even though the sample size for this season is small, we can see the similarities between the two players. Anderson’s passing has improved a lot over the last few seasons. He was averaging an 83% pass completion rate in 2010/11, which improved to 86% the following season. He has continued to improve and this season his averages is up to 93%.
United’s Passing Engine
United have two excellent passing midfielders (aside from Scholes) in Carrick and Cleverley, but Anderson brings something different. Both Carrick and Cleverly are exemplary at retaining the ball and making short, precise passes – but Anderson’s long passing is something to be admired.
To have a pass completion rate of 93% is impressive – even more so when we look at the distance he’s passing. The screen grab below shows Anderson’s passes against Fulham and Scholes’ passes against Stoke. Both players were substituted before the end of the game, but this provides a good example of the difference in passes between the two.
As soon as Anderson gets the ball he is looking to release United’s wide men, or switch the play. This makes it very hard for a team to defend and opens up space for United to move forward. In contrast Scholes was playing very tight against Stoke, as we can see by his centralised passing. One factor for this is Stokes tactics. They are a very hard team to break down and put a lot of pressure on the ball and load the midfield.
This meant Scholes had to adapt his game to more of a Cleverly or Carrick style role – highlighting his versatility and adaptability. This isn’t what Anderson is on the pitch for. United have Carrick and Cleverley ready to fill that void. Anderson’s role is emulate Scholes’ attacking vision and dissect teams with his long passes.
Differences and Similarities
When I first decided to write this article I wanted to see how similar Anderson and Scholes were. I wanted to look into why Anderson had been getting less playing time, and whether his re-emergence meant he was out to fill a different role.
My conclusion is this. Anderson’s passing has definitely improved. He may not be at Scholes’ standard but there are very few players that are. He definitely plays a different role at United than he used to. He rarely takes on players and he relinquishes possession much less than before. At first I thought he might be being groomed to replace Scholes, but it’s not that simple.
Short of landing Xavi or Alonso, United will struggle to fill the void left by Scholes when he retires (again). Having good passing midfielders is one of the keys to United’s long term success under Ferguson and this is highlighted by current players such as Anderson, Carrick and Cleverley.
So the logical explanation is that Ferguson and his staff have been developing Anderson to fit this mould. To fit into a passing midfield that offers versatility, penetration and vision. It offers strength in depth and most of all it offers unquestionable potential for the future.