There was a moment, somewhere around 15 minutes into Manchester United’s insipid performance against Chelsea at Old Trafford on Sunday, when Brazilian midfielder Anderson lofted a 50 yard pass forward. With space to turn on to his favoured left foot, and under no discernible pressure, the player had time to assess the situation before striking the ball a full 30 yards beyond the nearest United forward. After six years at Old Trafford, the only surprise in the moment was Anderson’s fitness to play yet another wasteful pass.
Deployed against Chelsea as the most forward of United’s curious midfield triumvirate, Anderson received the ball 46 times, made 36 passes – 32 successful – and lost possession on eight other occasions. He created no chances, took no shots and scored no goals. Plus ça change.
Impudence aside, Sunday’s wasn’t Anderson’s most slipshod performance in a United shirt. There have been plenty of those. On the day others – notably Ryan Giggs, Antonio Valencia, Tom Cleverley – were just as injurious, but after six years of increasing mediocrity few can remember when Anderson reached his current low.
This season is the player’s career in a microcosm: just seven starts in the Premier League, 15 in all competitions. Sir Alex Ferguson is increasingly loathe to trust the former international, even on the sporadic occasions when the player is fit.
There have been two goals and five assists – three in a single Carling Cup match against Chelsea – and he has taken just seven shots all season. The numbers have rarely stacked up. In 168 appearances in all competitions Anderson has produced just nine goals and 21 assists – eight of those in the Carling Cup.
That Anderson has never started more than 30 games for United in a campaign says much about how little Ferguson can or does reply on the midfielder. That the player has started and finished just 18 matches in those 168 appearances for the club affirms the observation. In keeping with history, Anderson was substituted after 69 minutes of United’s defeat to Chelsea at the weekend.
Now aged 25, it is impossible to argue that Anderson is a better than the player United acquired for €30 million (£20.3 million) in June 2007. He has certainly regressed from the exciting attacking talent that secured the Golden Ball as best player at the 2005 FIFA U-17 World Championship.
And whatever the blame for Anderson’s misadventure – the player’s bankrupt attitude to professionalism, Sir Alex’ tactical misuse, and rank bad luck – failure it most certainly is. In the years of waiting the only wonder left is Sir Alex’ enduring patience.
Indeed, the player will surely be shipped out in the summer should United find a suitable buyer, although the club will have to write off a substantial percentage of the player’s original purchase price. Rumours of a return to Porto may represent the best bet for both player and United.
In fact there is no guarantee that a more suitable buyer will come forward to claim the player at a price that United is willing to accept, although with two years left on the midfielder’s contract the coming summer represents the best return the club will ever achieve.
And the player has little argument to brook when United move him on; not after claiming that the campaign now drawing to a close was a defining moment in his career. It should be.
Anderson’s probable exit represents a significant about face, especially for Sir Alex who has been unswerving in his public support for the former Grêmio player. After all here is a manager with a peerless reputation for developing youth who has, through some significant fault of his own, failed to get the best out of an expensive youthful acquisition.
“We are delighted,” said Ferguson when Anderson signed a new five-year £80,000-per-week contract in summer 2010. “Anderson has developed tremendously since joining us; he is going to be a really top player.”
Similar plaudits have followed each return from injury and every subsequent false start. Ferguson’s support is buttressed each time by any morsel of evidence that Anderson might one-day become the player that United’s management and massed support always wanted.
But there have been just 49 starts since that lucrative new contract was inked. Almost £12 million committed in wages since 2010 at around £250,000 per start. By the time Anderson leaves this summer, United will have paid out around £50 million in transfer fee, bonuses and wages for the player. As Ferguson was once so fond of saying, there really is no value in the market.
Should the player move on it will surely benefit all parties; a return to Portugal or Brazil, where economic growth now enables local clubs to finance players on European wages, will proffer the player game-time in a lower profile environment. And while Anderson will almost certainly never become the player that Golden Ball once promised, the talent remains to forge a career elsewhere.
Moreover, removing Anderson from Ferguson’s roster will create the space and incentive for the Scot to acquire a new central midfielder for the first time since the Brazilian’s capture six years ago.
The strategy comes at a risk of course: Darren Fletcher’s chronic illness, and Paul Scholes’ retirement will leave United two further central midfielders down, while Ryan Giggs will turn 40 shortly into the new season. But United’s goals have moved on too. Returning the Premier League to trophy to Old Trafford this season affords the club a new incentive next year – Europe, where the genuine benchmark of quality surely lies.
Indeed, United’s ability to dismiss domestic mediocrity has masked weaknesses in Ferguson’s first team – a fact recorded in the Reds’ mixed record of 11 points from 24 against other members of the ‘top five’: City, Chelsea, Arsenal and Tottenham Hotspur. The team hasn’t beaten a European opponent of genuine note since a 1-0 victory in Valencia, September 2010.
That record is unlikely to change before Ferguson’s strengthens at United’s point of greatest fragility in central midfield. Anderson’s departure is now central to that goal.