Felipe Anderson: Everything the PL expected, plus everything it didn’t
Teams like West Ham United aren’t supposed to sign players like Felipe Anderson.
The Brazilian’s move to East London feels like one of the more on-the-nose representations of the Premier League’s spending power, but even bearing that in mind, it’s surprising in retrospect that a club unable to even offer European competition was able to sign him.
Upon his arrival, and given the club’s previous record with ‘exciting’ players, there were plenty of people who anticipated him becoming a very expensive mistake. It didn’t take long for him to prove them wrong.
Felipe Anderson doesn’t really make sense as a player or even a concept.
You look at him, and see his ability on the ball, and you feel as though you have a pretty good idea of what he’s like on the pitch.
This is a man who brings the ball down as if he’s stroking a pet or catching a vase, ensuring every single piece of contact is gentle enough to ensure all danger is averted.
And yet, if you felt like dismissing him as a flair merchant and little more, you’d be very wrong.
The archetype of such a player doesn’t tend to ask for the ball at all moments, but Anderson recorded more than 2500 touches in his debut season, 500 more than any other West Ham player and just 27 fewer than N’Golo Kanté.
Furthermore, he recorded 89 tackles. Only Declan Rice managed more for West Ham, and only eight players managed more for anyone.
You’d think he wouldn’t have time for much else, but again you’d be off base.
Felipe Anderson last season:
89 tackles, tied for 9th highest in the Premier League.
Most attacking-minded player to appear in the top 10.
— ForeverBoleyn (@Forever_Boleyn) June 2, 2019
With Manuel Lanzini missing much of the first half of the season, and Andriy Yarmolenko suffering a long-term injury just 10 games into his West Ham career, Anderson seemingly did everything because there was no choice but to.
Freedom to hang onto the ball is one thing, but you still need to use it properly. Thankfully for the former Lazio man, he did that early on with a beautiful flicked finish against Manchester United.
His equaliser against Huddersfield was another early example. Your dad probably still doesn’t really trust South American players when the weather gets colder, especially on those unforgiving pitches up north. They won’t fancy it, he says, ignoring any and all evidence to the contrary.
Yet not only did Anderson score at Huddersfield in November, he produced an unstoppable finish right at the point where his team might have begun thinking it wasn’t going to be their day.
More than an hour had passed since Alex Pritchard had given the Yorkshire side an early lead, and the hosts were getting men back in an effort to squeeze out the Londoners.
There were seven defenders between Anderson and the goal when he let fly, as well as goalkeeper Jonas Lössl, yet he found that tiny gap above Christopher Schindler’s head, like a video game hero finding that one weakness in the end boss’ armour.
What’s more, it came from a move he started himself with some more orthodox wing-play, beating one man on the halfway line and slipping a delicious reverse pass through to the underlapping Aaron Cresswell, before recognising his work wasn’t done just yet.
He jabbed at Huddersfield repeatedly with a pin, but they thought they’d escaped the worst right up until the point they realised he’d created a hole big enough for a dagger to slide right in.
That was the fourth of his nine league goals, and the second of three with his supposedly weaker left foot, but the best of the bunch came a month later against Crystal Palace.
We’ve spoken before on these pages about Thierry Henry and Arjen Robben, players who can cut in from out wide and place seemingly telegraphed shots out of the reach of any goalkeeper, and this was along those lines.
He used Aaron Wan-Bissaka as a marker for where he needed to aim, like an artist obeying the rule of thirds, and even a full-length dive from Wayne Hennessey ended nowhere near the arc of the shot.
It was his way of telling his opponents “this is my yard now”, giving them the luxury of feeling as though they have time to breathe before reminding them that even a breathless pursuit would have had about as much of an effect of trying to block spray paint with a sieve.
West Ham have had players capable of the same before – Dimitri Payet springs immediately to mind, while Joe Cole had it in his locker, but there were reasons why those two were playing for the club why they were.
With every bit of brilliance in his debut season, it was if Felipe Anderson was looking at those suggesting there must be a reason why he hadn’t found himself on a higher perch and asking “you sure, mate?”.
As he prepares for his second season as a West Ham player, it ought to be both easier and harder for him to build on his debut campaign.
With Lanzini and Yarmolenko back fit, and Pablo Fornals joining the party, there ought to be more team-mates to relieve the pressure, yet at the same time the defenders he comes up against will have more of an idea of what he can do.
That said, he’s already shown how defenders knowing what to expect and defenders being able to stop just that are two very different things. Long may it continue.
By Tom Victor