By Graham Ruthven

Along with Arsenal’s seven-year trophy drought, Stoke City’s long ball and bully tactics and Roman Abramovich’s itchy trigger finger at Chelsea, Manchester United’s anaemic central midfield has become a tired soccer cliché.

Sir Alex Ferguson implements the transfer policy normally adopted by an overly-enthusiastic teenager playing Football Manager for the first time, overloading on top class attackers and ignoring other areas of his team desperate for rejuvenation. That’s the assumption, anyway.

No other area of United’s squad is in need of revitalizing than its central midfield. Persuading Paul Scholes to come out of retirement for a second spell with the Red Devils last season gave them the vigour only a new signing could provide. The problem was that new signing was 38 years old.

However, since then Sir Alex Ferguson has shown a willingness to find a solution to his central midfield issues before Scholes retires for good, most likely at the end of this campaign. His efforts have focused on one player in particular.

Despite holding down a squad place at Old Trafford for over five years, this season is being regarded by many as Anderson’s breakthrough campaign. Having garnered a reputation as a temperamental and inconsistent luxury player since joining United in 2007, the Brazilian has taken on a different role this term. And it’s working.

But how exactly has he changed his game and are United a better team for it?

The sample size for the season so far might be small, but by looking at both Anderson and Scholes’ statistics it’s possible to dispel a number of presumptions. At first glance, the similarities between the Brazilian and the Englishman stretch further than you may think.

The Brazilian might attempt less passes per game than Scholes on average (91 compared to 103), but his pass completion rate, the modern barometer of central midfield proficiency, stands at 93%, with Scholes at 92%.

In fact, Anderson’s pass completion rate has improved every season for the past three years (83% in 2010/11 and 86% in 2011/12), a significant mark-up for a player many accuse of being wasteful.

These percentages indicate little, particularly for a side of United’s sheer attacking prowess, but the areas where Anderson is making these passes and the frequency at which he’s making them is most impressive.

Passing should be done with purpose (as every self-respecting Barcelona critic will tell you), and Anderson has become the epitome of this maxim for United this season.

Of the average 38 attacking third passes he attempts per game, the United number eight maintains a completion rate of 89% (the highest among his teammates). But perhaps most impressive is that, of his average 91 passes per game, 32% are made from over 20 yards distance or more, a stylistic trait he has developed since arriving at Old Trafford.

Against West Ham he completed more passes in the attacking third than any other player, the joint highest number of dribbles and the second highest number of overall passes (only Michael Carrick made more).

And in the Capital One Cup defeat to Chelsea he provided three assists, made four so-called key passes and received the Man of the Match award.

His goal at Reading on Sunday might not have demonstrated why he has become such a dynamic performer for United of late, but it did show the confidence with which he is operating right now.

However, it was a 30-minute cameo against Queens Park Rangers where he directly replaced Scholes from the bench that provided the starkest contrast between the two.

Trailing 1-0, Anderson created two excellent chances for teammates Robin Van Persie and Wayne Rooney and maintained a pass completion rate of 94% before laying on a wonderfully crafted assist for Javier Hernandez after surging through the opposition midfield.

After the game, Sir Alex Ferguson himself acknowledged the Brazilian’s performance, admitting: “Anderson made the difference, there’s no question about that. He came on and we came to life.”

However, while statistically the 24-year-old might stack up impressively against Scholes, it is on the chalkboard where the real difference between the two can be found.

United with Scholes operating alongside Michael Carrick in the centre can be insipidly predictable. Quite simply, both players’ natural instinct to sit deep and dictate plays in front of them makes it easy for opponents to defend against, packing the attacking third, plugging the gaps and limiting the space afforded to opposition forwards.

In games where United are the naturally dominant side, control of the pace and direction of the play is something of a given. They don’t need Scholes to control the game. On these occasions Anderson’s capacity to break up defensive packs, creating space for teammates to exploit, gives Ferguson a more energetic and offensive option in the centre of midfield.

By switching the play to the wings or releasing forwards quickly Anderson unsettles the kind of tightly packed back-lines United often find themselves up against.

In theory, the Brazilian could effectively play alongside Scholes in the centre of the field, but it’s Michael Carrick and Tom Cleverley with whom he appears to have developed the strongest understanding.

When all three started against West Ham last week, they occupied United’s top four pass combination spots, claiming almost half of their side’s total pass tally (255 out of 550). When you factor in the influence of deep lying forward Wayne Rooney it’s clear United’s midfield might not be as insipid as the cliché would have you believe.

In deploying Anderson in a new central midfield role, Ferguson might have finally recognised that, short of signing Xavi or Andrea Pirlo, he is unlikely to find a direct replacement for Scholes.

There are areas of Anderson’s game where the hand of Scholes can be detected (perhaps playing alongside a player of his technical ability has had a natural influence). Anderson’s role now is certainly more conservative than it has been over the past few seasons.

However, just as United found out against QPR, the fact that he little resembles Scholes might be his biggest asset.

Comments (9)

  1. I really do laugh whenever someone mentions United’s weak central midfield. Carrick, Anderson, Cleverley, Fletcher, and Kagawa- plus Scholes and Giggs, not to mention Powell. And Rooney drops into the midfield from time to time as well. What United really need is Valencia to return to form, and Nani/Young to find theirs. That and Vidic. I’m tired of watching Evans lose his marker on set-pieces.

    • So Fergie gets a pass for not recognizing that Rio is a broken down golf cart and crutches are seen so often accomodating Vidic that you’d think they’re a part of his body? Maybe signing a world-class CB would’ve been a good start. As for the midfield, that crap might pass for the EPL, weak as it seems at the moment. But if you think any coaches Man U may come across in Europe are going crazy trying to figure out ways to stymie Carrick, Cleverley, Fletcher, Scholes or Giggs, you are grossly mistaken. Kagawa doesn’t fit into anything SAF has tried to get him to do, sadly. I still can’t figure out what he’s trying to get Rooney to do, but it still doesn’t seem healthy to me.

      In short, if United could get their hands on a solid midfielder (NOT SNEIJDER) and a stud CB, i’d put them up as one of Europe’s best. Seriously, all it would take right now. But as is, they could get knocked out in the second CL round and it wouldn’t be as big a shock as the press would make it out to be.

      • I think kagawa has worked well in that diamond; even potting in a couple goals.

        • I agree 100%.

          Although Kagawa wasn’t absolutely dazzling every match before he got hurt, he was still playing well. He has good ball distribution and is very calm and cool when he has possession. Plus he’s new to the EPL, so I’m fully confident that he’ll find great form in the coming weeks.

    • Get real, our midfield is absolutely atrocious that week in and week out leave much to be desired.

      Carrick – pylon
      Fletcher – no longer has the drive after his illness
      Kagawa – hurt
      Scholes – sick but pylon
      Giggs – old
      Powell – Young
      Cleverley and Anderson are the only two id play in midfield and one of them in consistently out. Kagawa a nice player as well but has also been hurt.

      what the team really needs is a strong box to box midfielders; think Victor Wanyama, Kevin Strootman, Axel Witsel or Fellaini….these players represent a dire need that the squad simply does not poses; would lead to an immediate improvement.

      • Once again, I agree with you 100% lol. Powell, Kagawa, Cleverley and Anderson are all talented and can be dangerous, but it’s a mixture of youth, injuries, and adjusting to the league.

        As much as I like Scholes and Giggs and admire them for their long and successful careers, I hope they retire after this season. Fletcher can go play elsewhere as well, but I’m fine with Carrick sticking around for awhile longer. He can still contribute somewhat, and next year would be perfect to play a role in less meaningful games that allows the regulars to have a break.

      • I think Kagawa would work best at the tip of the diamond, behind Rooney and Van Persie. The only problem is that Rooney also plays well there and would probably offer more defensive soundness than Kagawa.

        Although I don’t agree with you about Carrick- I think he is still and important part of the midfield- I do agree that another midfielder is needed. Preferably someone who can challenge Carrick’s position in the team. An Anderson and Cleverley partnership is dynamic in the opposition’s half but is a bit defensively naive; where, as you say, a strong box to box midfielders would be excellent.

        I love Scholes and Giggs as much as any United fan, but when they are asked to play in a two man midfield, the midfield looks especailly shit.

      • the fact that you used the term ‘box-to-box midfielder ‘ and labled Carrick a pylon means your opinion is seriously undermined.

        that term should be put in with the other worn out cliches from the start of the piece.

  2. When compared to other Euro giants, United’s midfield is lacking elite quality.

    For a stark reminder, just go look at the rosters of Bayern Munich, Barcelona, Juventus, Borussia Dortmund, Real Madrid etc etc and who they can roll out in the midfield.

    Hopefully, they sell Nani (so much talent…so much waste) in the winter transfer window and use those funds to help bring in a world class midfielder. One who is eligible to play in the Champions League this campaign would be best.

    And NO I’m not thinking about a frozen out Dutch midfielder.

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