As the curtain comes down on a Manchester United career that promised much, but rarely delivered, Sean O’Neill discusses the dramatic fall from grace of Anderson.
As the mid-season transfer window drew to an uneventful close after a sleepy January, one of the deals that did go through saw Manchester United’s Anderson bring an end to his time at Old Trafford. After 7 and half years at United, the Brazilian returns to his homeland to join Internacional.
But at the modest age of 26, the midfielder, once christened the new Ronaldinho, has seen his promising career in European football come to a regretful end.
Sky Sports were less-than-busy compared to recent deadline days as Gary Neville and company discussed a transfer story with little prominence.
Neville lamented over what could have been for his former teammate.
“Having played with him, he’s got an enormous amount of talent and…I can think of a couple of games at Anfield I can remember, or against Liverpool, and I think in big matches he was really capable.
“He was a big-game player with a big-game mentality and lots of skill, but was never fit enough to do it consistently week in week out in the Premier League, and that’s a real shame.
“Because that’s when a lot of players will look back at the end of their careers and think ‘could I have been that little bit more driven and determined?”
The games against Liverpool, Neville refers to, came in Anderson’s first season at United. He had arrived from Porto as a 19-year-old for £20 million.
Many commentators had questioned Alex Ferguson’s judgement in buying a relatively unknown teenager from Portugal for such a large fee, but from the moment his Old Trafford career kicked-off it was clear that the powerful centre-midfielder was a wonder-kid with enormous potential.
Ferguson signed Anderson with the intention of slowly bringing him into the team and establishing him as Paul Scholes’ long-term replacement.
A bedding-in period was not necessary though. After Scholes was injured for three months, the former Gremio youngster was propelled into the first team. He grabbed his chance to impress.
United travelled to Arsenal in November 2007. Anderson went up against another young midfielder who was beginning to project himself into the midfield general category. Cesc Fabregas had taken over as Arsenal’s prince following the departure of Theirry Henry.
Fabregas’ star had been rising for a couple of years prior to his tussle with Anderson on that crisp Autumn day in North London. He didn’t expect a 19-year-old to be brave enough to come to his turf and up stage him.
But that’s exactly what United’s new number eight did.
He battled in the midfield trenches with the Spaniard, challenging every ball, disrupting his flow, making him work for every blade of grass as he himself broke up the game and sprayed passes for Cristiano Ronaldo to run at the Arsenal defence.
A youthful United side naively conceded a last minute equaliser. But Anderson had laid down a marker against a team and an opponent who threatened his rise to the top.
One month later Ferguson and his troops made the journey down the East Lancs Road and prepared for battle with their chief enemy.
Again Anderson got the nod in central-midfield. This time he was up against a more established figure in Steven Gerrard who was on the verge of world-class status.
The spotlight was expected to be on the flair of Ronaldo or Fernando Torres but the fight to decide the game ensued between the United youngster and the Liverpool stalwart.
Like Fabregas, Gerrard, was in for a major surprise as the desire and stamina of Anderson ousted him from his comfort zone in the Anfield engine room.
Anderson ruffled Gerrard’s feathers. The England international grew more anxious and irritated as the contest continued. His opposite number 8 gave was not letting up.
He couldn’t come up with the answers to the physicality and power of the dynamic left-footer as the ‘Pool fell short.
A crucial win at the home of their greatest rivals, led by their new artisan in midfield, set up United for a successful season.
The former Porto man had entered the cauldron of Anfield and led his teammates to victory. His leadership skills and commitment to the cause displayed the ability he possessed despite his tender years.
Ferguson realised he had a sensational player among his ranks. No longer would he have to rely on the ageing legs of Scholes.
The Manchester United boss said in December 2007:
“The reports we were getting were saying that he was the best young player in the world. At the time, I was saying, ‘For God’s sake, let’s calm down a bit here. I knew he had real potential, but I didn’t want to put labels on him like that. But we’ve been delighted with him and he has proven himself to be a true central midfield player.”
The Porto Alegre born star enjoyed a fruitful first season at Old Trafford, winning the Premier League crown as well as a coveted Champions League medal, coming on to score a crucial penalty in the shootout against Chelsea. He held his nerve to blast past Petr Cech as they tensely entered sudden-death after John Terry’s slip.
The supporters soon saw the possibilities opening up for a long career at United for the Brazilian boy-wonder.
This was emphasised by the legions of supporters at Old Trafford chanting his name regularly. He was a fan favourite by the end of his first season. The Stretford End faithful believed Ferguson had once again unearthed a diamond in the rough with a nonchalant attitude.
But this casual demeanour was something that developed in a player who progressively began to pick up injuries at a rate of knots.
In Ferguson’s own autobiography he laid the blame for defeat in the 2009 Champions League upon the Brazilian, after he was taken off at half-time after making only three passes and failing to deal with the wizardry of the Barcelona midfield.
During a crucial period of his development in 2010 when he was 22, he picked up his first serious knee injury that ruled him out for six months.
Other issues arose.
Anderson was fined £80,000 by the club after he returned to Brazil without permission. But the club retained faith in him as he signed four-and-a-half-year contract extension in December 2010.
After losing another European Cup Final to Guardiola’s mesmerising Barcelona in 2011, Ferguson decided he needed a new dynamic style to counter act the Spanish powerhouse.
At the beginning of the 2011/12 season, a revamp was taking place as the United squad was reduced to an average of 24. Anderson was central to the transition. He and Tom Cleverley were seen as the long term solution in central areas after they controlled the midfield in the thrashings of Arsenal and Chelsea.
But the 6-1 hammering by Man City was a major set-back as Ferguson had to re-think his philosophy. An injury ravaged second half to the season was beginning to slow Anderson’s development.
As the Ferguson era entered its final stage, any attempts by the Brazilian to recapture his previous ability appeared to be in vain. His fitness and physique was called into question. Hamstring injuries were adding to the previous knee problems.
David Moyes appeared willing to give Anderson a chance. But it was too late. The once energetic box-to-box midfielder was now lacking the playmaking skills of his early years at Old Trafford.
The second-half of last season emphasised his demise as he was shipped off to mid-table Fiorentina in Serie A. He struggled to impress and he returned to Manchester.
After failing to find a suitor during the summer he remained in the club’s reserves. He returns to South America after his career has stagnated to an irretrievable point.
Anderson’s failure to live up to his potential was not exclusive to his exploits on the club stage.
Brazil have been devoid of a central midfielder who could tackle, pass, and possesses genuine playmaking skill and ability to control a game. Anderson was the dynamo they needed but instead over the last three years his career has been regressing on the international stage. This demise ensured the biggest footballing nation lacked a deep-lying playmaker in the summer of 2014.
For a gifted individual such as Anderson to prematurely depart the Premier League is an utter catastrophe as he was player who at 19 years of age went toe-to-toe Steven Gerrard and Cesc Fabregas and reigned supreme.
His qualities were never questioned, underlined by Alex Ferguson’s decision to entrust him with central roles in big games domestically and in Europe. Injuries ultimately took their toll on a player who could have been the key figure in Manchester United’s midfield as they entered the post-Ferguson era.
As Anderson departs Manchester a sense of ‘what could have been’ is the overriding obituary of his life in England. At a time when Red Devil fans believed he would be entering the peak of his powers in the middle of their midfield, he returns to his homeland.
It’s a shame for a player who once had the world at his feet.