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.