The mercurial free signing who could change the way Aston Villa play football

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Aston Villa have been linked with the free transfer of a winger familiar to Premier League fans - but he would be a risky signing

You remember Felipe Anderson – back in 2018, West Ham United made him the most expensive player in their history when they spent £36m to sign him from Lazio. For one season he was brilliant, and then before you know it, he was gone from the starting line-up and then from the club altogether. Now, after three years rebuilding his career back in Rome, the Brazilian winger could be ready for another crack at the Premier League, this time with Aston Villa.

Villa are believed to be deep in negotiations over a free transfer for the 30-year-old, whose contract at the Stadio Olimpico expires in the summer. There remains hope that they could bring him in this January, although Lazio would prefer to avoid that. He remains a regular starter on the right wing for them. Still, while there are other clubs in the mix including Juventus, Unai Emery’s side seem to be the favourites to secure his signature.

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It's an extremely intriguing signing on a number of levels. Firstly, Anderson is a mercurial player and while he has a great many qualities, he can be unreliable and difficult. In his first year with the Hammers, he was their best player, a sparkling creative presence and a constant goal threat who managed 13 goal contributions across the 2018/19 season. Then, in his second, his form fell off a cliff. He fell out with new manager David Moyes, apparently suffered through a back injury, and only scored once. A loan spell with Porto went no better, and he got on the wrong side of the head coach there, as well.

He has been slightly more consistent since returning to Lazio, although his production still ebbs and flows with form and mood. In his first year back in the Italian capital, goals and assists flowed. Last season, he scored plenty but didn’t provide much. Now, the opposite is true – he has scored just twice, but already has six assists. He tends to blow hot and cold in patches, and in December was hooked off at half-time in a Serie A match against Frosinone with his coach Maurizio Sarri describing him as “not having a positive period of form” and saying thing he “lost the ball a couple of times in banal fashion and just switched off.”

Trying to make total sense of Anderson’s production and the way his form soars one moment before falling to earth the next is almost impossible, so while signing a relatively proven player on a free may seem like a low risk move, it may well be anything but. He can devastating or utterly placid, and it’s hard to know when you’ll get one or the other.

The potential move is also interesting because Anderson has spent his entire senior career on the flank of a front three, either on the left or on the right, where he is playing for Lazio at the moment – and that isn’t how Emery sets Villa up. So that opens up the question as to whether the signing of Anderson represents a change in system going forward, or whether Emery sees Anderson being able to operate in another role.

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Perhaps Emery wants to change things up and move to a 4-3-3 going forward. The current set-up of a front two of Ollie Watkins and Moussa Diaby has worked extremely well up until the last few weeks, but perhaps the slight dip in form over Christmas has encouraged Emery to look for the wide players to be more involved and to get closer to his other attacking players. John McGinn and Leon Bailey have both been plenty productive this season, but it may be that Emery believes he would get more goals out of a more compact front line. As it stands, there is often a lot of space between the wide forwards and the front two.

Or it could be that Emery just wants Anderson to play as a more traditional winger in a 4-4-2 set-up. He has the raw pace to terrorise opposing full-backs and get to the by-line, and he’s perfectly used to getting into positions for cut-backs – but equally, his crossing success rate of 16% is no more than solid and there’s no suggestion that he has a Beckhamesque capacity to drop long, arcing balls onto a team-mate’s head from 30 yards away. He’s used to coming deep to get the ball and hugging the touchline, but tends to look for passing opportunities with his team-mates coming towards him rather than making deep runs.

One thing that Anderson does bring to the table is his work ethic on the field – when he’s on form and happy with his lot, he’s a fantastic asset to any pressing team and generates plenty of tackles and turnovers for his team. That’s something that McGinn does well for Villa, too, but which Bailey is much less effective at. Nicolò Zaniolo wins turnovers, too, but has not yet been productive enough in the final third. Anderson could be seen as a player who can bridge the gap and offer the best of Bailey and Zaniolo, while also offering a bit more variety around the edge of the area and the sheer speed to link up with Watkins and Diaby more quickly.

If it works, then there’s no reason that Anderson shouldn’t have a few good years left in him yet, and no sign that the pace which forms an important part of his game is waning too much or too fast. Of course, it could be that he hits another one of his occasional lulls, or that he and Emery don’t strike up the kind of working relationship that gets the best out of him. It has, to be fair to Anderson, been a few years since he was last generating negative headlines for his attitude – perhaps he has matured and turned a corner, or perhaps he simply has a good relationship with Sarri.

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If Villa can get the Anderson we saw in that first season at the London Stadium on a free transfer, it would represent a spectacular piece of business. If they find themselves lumbered with a frustratingly inconsistent thirty-something with an attitude and wavering form, it might not look so smart. Either way, it looks increasingly likely that we’ll find out fairly soon.

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