Newcastle United’s Man in Transition
Vurnon Anita arrived on Tyneside from Dutch giants Ajax, a central midfield player with close control, good touch, short passing and clever movement. With Newcastle going into the Europa League that same season, Anita was also brought in to share some of the European experience (Champions League & Europa) that he had gained from his time at Ajax.
He immediately showed that he possessed some real quality in some areas of his game. Great positional sense and linked up play well, this was combined with a great touch and tactical awareness. However, some drawbacks were also evident in Anita’s game.
He struggled with the physicality of the Premier League, often wanting too much time on the ball, leading to him being caught in possession too often. His quality short passing was evident but he went backwards with the ball far too regularly, making him easy to read, with teams choosing to press quickly and in numbers when Anita had the ball, knowing it would always force him backwards.
When playing alongside Cheick Tiote and Yohan Cabaye, Anita looked better. Acting as something of a link between the tough-tackling Ivorian and the quality French playmaker, something of a middle ground between the two, but after Cabaye’s departure to French giants PSG, Anita saw his opportunities limited.
He started last season playing in midfield, under Steve McClaren, but the same drawbacks were evident in his game, and it seemed as though things might never work on Tyneside, despite his obvious quality. However, Anita was not the only player to start the season poorly and as the club were drawn into a relegation battle, manager Steve McClaren was sacked late in the season.
McClaren was replaced by Rafa Benitez, who would start his tenure by playing Daryl Janmaat as his right-back. However, after a horror show at Southampton, in which Janmaat picked up an injury, Benitez turned to Anita to solve the vacancy left by Janmaat.
Vurnon Anita used many of the same qualities that had made him a quality midfielder at Ajax, to make a reliable and intelligent full-back. He reads the game well, using his intelligence to decide when to join in attacks, or when to hold his position and give the side something more defensively. The transition to right-back, has seemingly been an effortless one and he has, this season, established himself as not only Newcastle’s first choice, but arguably the finest right-back in the Championship.
Anita is not the first player to make the move from the heart of midfield to full-back. Former Newcastle captain Geremi made a similar change as his career went on. As Geremi lost his ability to get around the pitch, he dropped back to right-back, while at Chelsea, a decision which probably extended his career there by a significant amount of time.
Geremi shared many of the same qualities as Anita at full-back. He read the game well, was comfortable on the ball and added top level experience to his team. Before he came to Newcastle and Sam Allardyce played him central midfield once more, ultimately making his move to Tyneside a failure.
However, while Geremi made the move because he was losing his mobility and his pace, Anita made the move because he was struggling to adapt to the physical nature of the Premier League. Therefore, Vurnon Anita is a lot more mobile than Geremi was, meaning he is able to get forward more effectively, giving his side more balance from an attacking point of view.
Vurnon Anita has the obvious qualities needed to make the transition effectively, such as good positional sense, good intelligence on the pitch, good ball control and the ability to add balance to the side both going forward and defensively, as well as the most important one, tactical awareness.
If a player has a level of tactical awareness that enables them to make the transition, the reduced workload on their legs could extend their career. In addition to this, players making this transition are often better than modern day full-backs, who focus too much on attacking.
While a modern full-back is sometimes a great asset to a top level side, who can afford to have their full-backs bombing forward because of their control over the game, or a side who has a defensive midfielder who drops in as an emergency centre-back to cover the attacking nature of their full-backs.
The converted Anita gives Newcastle balance, quality, mobility and cover, everything that is essential from a good defender in a team that does not have, Champions League quality.
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