Tuesday, 30 August 2011

Anderson: Story of an enigma. United's number eight

By Red Snout

It is easy to like Anderson Luís de Abreu Oliveira. He’s Brazilian and as you know dating a Brazilian has its cleansing and astringent effect. His name inspires a shriek of delight. A cheerful and deeply personable character, who, at times reminds us of that frolicking naive next door boy in blazed beige slacks and white loafers. He is the ultimate perpetrator of facile hedonism in the dressing room. Found-in-the-dustbin-played-in-the-streets background, unflagging enthusiasm, gaucho swagger, he has everything you look for in a typical Brazilian.

His football is out of kilter with everything else in a relentlessly high tempo game and its intoxicating Britishness. He was the most nerveless looking 19 year old ever to be found at the sudden death of a European cup final. There is much more to him than that, if you didn't know it already. He has done the impossible in football (see amazing video below) and thus elevated himself to immortal status in a city’s history. He is unique. He is Anderson.

But, like any other human being, he can’t hide some of his flaws. For a left footed Brazilian attacking playmaker, he’s spectacularly unspectacular. His hunchback stance, lump-in-the-throat dreadlock fetish and the air of a man in a persistent struggle to remember his own phone number do not help things one bit. As I'm sure you will agree, these things were forgivable if he delivered consistent performances week-in week-out in that red shirt. Unfortunately, for some unknown reason, he didn’t. Tantalizingly brief ascendancy followed by a string of mediocre outings has become a theme. Statistical fetish isn’t a requisite to understand that 6 goals in 132 matches is hardly flamboyant stuff from a player of his talent. Look, I’m not going hard on him, honestly not, just making a plain observation like every other United fan. Ando’s scoring boots are evidently average, and by average I mean, perennially rubbish. But unlike Carrick or Gibson, he never found himself catapulted in to Beatles-mania style level of media scrutiny or unceasing cacophony of squeals and grunts from the United faithful. Let’s be honest, if he was playing in United’s modern Dark Age (2004-06), there would’ve been a long list of fans ready to drive him to the airport themselves.

Reasons behind his quiescence are often overlooked. Anyone who knows a thing or two about football will understand the impact injuries and an undefined role in the team makes in a young football player. Setbacks like knee problems, malleolus injury, cruciate ligament rupture, a miraculously escaped car accident and a ‘mysterious virus’ were never going to do any good for a footballer’s career. Especially, if you’re a semi-formed footballer, a delicate work-in-progress still learning to embrace foreign football while possessing a language skill which can only be explained as ‘rudimentary’. There’s a plethora of Latin American footballers in Europe who might prove this theory. This might seem like an unnecessary act of gallantry to leap to the defence of a criminally under-performing footballer, but in fact this is just a subtle connotation that it’s naive to overlook certain factors like these and slag him off (which is a new trend, thanks to the Internet).

Anderson’s position in the team plays an even more substantial role in the bigger picture. Six years ago, he blew his savings on an air ticket with the hope of having a stab at making it in Europe and found a team in FC Porto that allowed him the freedom of the suburban Iberian Peninsula. On his day, he attacked with verve, looked a wonderfully elusive and subtle playmaker in his free role. One unknown Portuguese journalist summed up his game well. “Anderson acts on instinct and he doesn’t get paralyzed by thinking too much”. Though, his following comment “The new Ronaldinho Gaucho”, in hindsight, remains as one of the harshest baptisms in modern football. Things were a bit different at United. Anderson’s attacking qualities were stripped back and his role was constrained to be that of a harrier. His frills were sacrificed for an admirable ferreting and deft sense of team play. From fantasy of Iberia to linearity and physicality of Anglo-Saxon football. Like an old couple taking up the tango for the first time, this must have been a culture shock for the teenage Brazilian. Quite tragically, Anderson’s lauded displays, notably against Arsenal and in a game at Anfield, were classic ‘scurrying, tackling and harassing’ performances. I think it’s fair to say that his role was easily misconstrued or he was asked to alter his game to adapt to risk-averse English football too soon. Questionable attitude and fitness were not being much help during troubled times.

Now, after two years of stagnated growth, oddly appearing transfer mutterings and occasional edge-of-the-seat stuff, things are starting to look up for Anderson. For the first time in his United career, he completed a fine pre-season. “The lad looks like a fat 12 year old but still plays well” one of my mates opined. A partnership with Tom Cleverley, still at primitive stages, shows a lot of promise and makes him a better player with dramatic and chastening improvement in positional and defensive diligence. The way he battled the experienced carnality of Yaya Toure and De Jong, the skill of Van Der Vaart and Ramsey, and the cohesion and bustle of West Brom, with such intensity and maturity gives a lot of room for hope. So far this season, United have scored 16 goals in 4 matches, 3 of them against 3rd, 4th and 5th best teams in the country last season. Traditionally, outstanding wing play and world class strikers added with a busy and purposeful central midfield partnership looks the most potent attacking force in the country at the moment. It feels nice.

The worst possible tribute to Paul Scholes could be a decade of terribly damaging auditions for a convincing man-for-man replacement. The mere thought of a freakishly naive young Brazilian with sun glasses and shiny buttoned blazers replacing a demure ginger genius is a bit bizarre, I agree. But the wily old Scot’s belief in youth and parsimonious owner’s economy preservation suggest that Anderson could be a vital cog in this new system for the next few years. It’s a massive step. From a confused-looking-bit-part-man binge drinking in the last chance saloon to a maestro who should set up a sustaining midfield dominance. One of the most difficult endeavours in English football will be the quest to fill the Paul Scholes vacuum. Then again, that poor kid from the meagre and miserable Porto Alegre never had it easy.

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