It can’t have been easy for Felipe Anderson. As a young boy growing up in a country where football is a religion, he stood in the shadows of an adolescent deity-to-be. Santos is a football club where icons are born, and it was there that Anderson found himself obscured by the limelight encompassing Neymar – the latest in a long line of burgeoning superstars.
Indeed, Neymar has since fulfilled such majestic expectations, becoming the idol of millions with evermore refined performances for Barcelona whilst displaying his effervescence on the international stage with Brazil. But while Neymar was busy carrying the nation’s hopes and dreams throughout the 2014 World Cup, Felipe Anderson had other, more personal concerns to worry over. The primary reason for Anderson’s furrowed brow will have had a lot to do with identity.
Come the summer of 2013 Anderson was beating a well-trodden path, leaving Santos and Brazil for European football. His destination was Rome, where he moved to be a part of a Lazio side that had just achieved qualification for continental football. He had been interesting several other clubs, including AC Milan, but was persuaded by Lazio’s sporting director, Igli Tare, to join the capital club.
So far, so ordinary. But within the next twelve months, Anderson would endure a frustrating time, whilst leaving others equally frustrated. Pressure intensified on the youngster’s shoulders, the source of which was an €8 million transfer fee that left him with a high ceiling to aim for. Tare, and Lazio, had splashed out on Anderson’s future, but the early signs were ominous.
Unable to establish himself within the line-up he once again found himself lingering in the shadows, whilst also having his attitude questioned. These questions were not new, with former coach Muricy Ramalho having asked the same ones during his time as manager of Santos. The suggestion seemed to hint at a talented young player, albeit one of an intransigently temperamental nature.
Anderson appeared to be following a familiar precedent – that of a young player who had earned his big move, failed to prosper and was bound to waste his ability. The next steps along this particular route tend to consist of said player dining out on his skills, making some money and promptly returning home.
Watching the World Cup last summer, Anderson must have been acutely aware of his own career choices. With talk of a loan spell away from Lazio, he was coming close to formulating a personal story along the same lines as Robinho, who also left Santos only to fail to live up to the hype surrounding him.
Ignoring such precedents Anderson stayed with Lazio, perhaps buoyed by the faith shown in him by club management. Leading into this season the 21 year old had his future on the line, but in recent weeks it seems as though he is coming to terms not just with the pressure on his shoulders, but with his role in the team, taking full advantage of Antonio Candreva’s absence.
In Lazio’s first game before the winter break they travelled to the San Siro for an away date with Inter Milan. Inter, continuously struggling in spite of the appointment of Roberto Mancini, were left open-mouthed by Anderson’s subsequent performance.
After just two minutes the young Brazilian – starting the game on the right flank – received a low cross from Stefan Radu in the Inter penalty area. With one touch he deftly took the pace off the ball, controlling it and nipping past the Nerazurri’s Andrea Ranocchia all at once, before firing home firmly with his left foot. Everything about the move was assured and decisive, both traits not commonly associated with a footballer racked with self-doubt.
Switching wings, Anderson then popped on the left flank just before the 40th minute mark. With the ball bouncing just inside the Inter half, Anderson nodded it into his path and advanced at speed. His compatriot, Juan Jesus, came across to cover him, but was evidently aware of Anderson’s pace. Jinking inside the penalty area and on to his right foot, Anderson once again avoided an incoming Ranocchia and slotted home. Lazio, and Anderson, were two up.
Lazio would fail to hold on to the lead, eventually drawing 2-2. A late Mateo Kovacic equaliser took some of the attention away from Anderson’s performance, but two weeks later the Brazilian would take centre-stage again.
It was the night before Epiphany, which Italy would celebrate with, amongst other things, a day of football, and Lazio began 2015 with a home match against Sampdoria. The Genovese had begun the campaign surprisingly well and entered the new year in a European place under the management of Sinisa Mihajlovic.
There was little Mihajlovic could do to stop Anderson on this evening, though. All he could do was watch on as the tricky midfielder tore his defence apart.
Anderson began by setting up Marco Parolo for Lazio’s first. Teasing a defender he turned on to his left foot before teeing up Parolo to lash home. It was positive, but what Anderson did next was spectacular.
Receiving the ball on his right foot about 30 yards out from goal, he took one touch before unleashing a low right footed drive that tunnelled perfectly through a mass of bodies before nestling in the bottom left corner.
On 67 minutes, Anderson capped his night by shrugging off the attentions of his marker before showing a clean pair of heels to two other Sampdoria players as he slalomed from inside his own half to the opposition by-line. Having done the hard part, he passed with nonchalant simplicity to Filip Djordjevic, who tapped into an open goal.
Viewed in isolation, Anderson’s displays against Inter and Sampdoria could be seen as a temporary spurt in good form. Holistically, however, the picture gives a clear sense of an upward trajectory. His increased first-team involvement has correlated with enhanced confidence, in turn leading to improved performances.
Lazio’s system seems to suit Anderson, and Anderson seems to suit Lazio’s system. Manager Stefano Pioli has created an effective unit since he took charge last summer, with Anderson now an important component on the right or left wing of a 4-1-4-1 formation. With Lucas Biglia holding, Anderson – along with Parolo, Stefano Mauri and Senad Lulic – is encouraged to join attacks spearheaded by either Djordjevic or German icon Miroslav Klose.
Anderson has revelled in the freedom afforded to him, but hasn’t shirked his duties within the system. With his fearless nature on the ball, quick turn of acceleration and capability to perform the outrageous, comparisons to Cristiano Ronaldo are not without merit.
Anderson still lacks poise in the final third at times, though even that is improving. He seems to be adding a clinical edge to his game, the sort of edge that can transform a luxurious fancy dan into a ruthless attacking machine.
Come Sunday afternoon many eyes will be fixated upon the Stadio Olimpico as Lazio face Roma. It is namely a battle for local pride, but also a clash between Serie A’s 2nd and 3rd placed teams. Felipe Anderson will be excited for another reason. On one of football’s grandest stages – the Derby della Capitale – he has the opportunity to confirm his emergence from the shadows.
By Blair Newman