Hindsight, making people look stupid
I wrote this on Anderson last month for Life’s a Pitch: I was incredibly wrong.
When Manchester United decided they were unwilling to match the haughty demands of Wesley Sneijder on deadline day, they took a risk. The flimsy midfield was Sir Alex Ferguson’s blindspot. Paul Scholes retired and Owen Hargreaves seemed permanently broken. The previous season saw Liverpool bully Manchester United’s midfield at Anfield, and Barcelona simply ignored them at Wembley. The midfield needed a rethink to be tough enough for the Premier League and to be clever enough for Europe. United’s central midfield was a busted flush, and Ashley Young was not the solution. Nobody could have expected that Anderson would play like the man Manchester United had been missing.
Last term, Michael Carrick played 44 games, Darren Fletcher 37 and Paul Scholes 33. Anderson did not manage more than 30. His form struggled. His first season had appeared a fluke, and it would have surprised few had he joined the cull in the transfer window.
The beginning of his United career saw Anderson define his potential at United by matching Cesc Fabregas and Steven Gerrard. He clearly wasn’t a superior player, but he unarguably won their individual contests. He displayed a deceptive speed, allowing him to ghost through midfields, he made tackles across the pitch, and at times would measure a pass better than anyone at Manchester United. At that time, they were still capable of thrilling football. In an attacking side, Anderson flourished. Last year’s United perfected going through the motions, doing just enough. The team had stagnated, and could not rouse themselves against Barcelona. Anderson was unsuited to these constrained performances. This season, thefearlessness of United’s new young players has sparked his form.
Anderson has shown enough of his best so far to suggest that Ferguson will survive without signing a new midfielder. Given responsibility as the senior partner in a midfield with Tom Cleverley, he has constantly improved. He drove through Arsenal’s and Spurs’ midfield as if they weren’t there – though you could argue Arsenal’s actually weren’t. He delivered his trademark, sensually weighted through-balls. Against a Manchester City side as physically imposing as Tony Soprano, he didn’t flinch.
This is a line-up that is the closest yet to the last great Ferguson side of 2008. It has enough in common for Anderson to peak. The interchangeable band of attackers ahead of him demands his focus is on creating chances, not maintaining 1-0 leads. With Phil Jones, Chris Smalling and Cleverley, there is the joy of a youthful side that does not know its limitations, and so exceeds them.
They have a new rival to take down. Whereas in 2008 it was Chelsea breathing down their necks, this year Manchester City have made United know this is a marathon run at a sprint’s pace. So when Manchester City won 5-1 at Spurs, Anderson responded on the same day, channelling Michael Laudrup to scoop a pass to release Danny Welbeck in United’s match against Arsenal.
United’s problems are not definitely resolved. Anderson has fitness concerns: throughout his career he has been susceptible to serious injury and a dodgy diet. He has never shown that consistency is one of his virtues – at any club. Having played only five games this season, he now has the added pressure of proving his ability when his team needs it most. Most of all, not only does he have to prove his worth, he has to make us forget Wesley Sneijder.