Player Focus: André-Frank Zambo Anguissa

We all saw them. The graphics that showed Andre-Frank Zambo Anguissa was leading the way in almost every measurable metric the football statisticians could track, were a regular part of television coverage during Fulham fixtures through the first half of the season…

Successful take-ons, duels won, winning possession; he was the leader in them all. And to many, this was not a surprise. The majority of Fulham fans were excited by the prospect of a rejuvenated Anguissa, returning from a personally, successful loan stint with Villarreal. He was an unknown quantity to most fans when he first arrived, I myself was unsure of his prospects, particularly given the reported price tag, due to being unaware of the midfielder before his unveiling at Motspur Park in the summer 2018. And that first season… well we all know how it ended.

Even though we saw flashes of ability in the latter stages of that doomed campaign, it’s difficult to make a case that the Cameroonian had been a success in West London before the commencement of the current playing period. But there was hope this time around. His reputation was repaired, and if he was to stay for another attempt at Premier League with The Whites, then we had real talent on our hands. And that has proven to be the case. Anguissa has shown himself to be a supremely talented, very skilled footballer. He is strong in the tackle, delicate with his touch, in addition to being near impossible to dispossess single-handedly. But for all the stats that go in his favour, there has been talk recently as to whether or not Fulham are getting enough from one of their most capable players. So much so, that after being a near ever-present in the starting XI since the second game of the season, through the COVID-19 outbreak and until West Ham visited Craven Cottage at the start February. What followed was Anguissa seeing his minutes decrease, starting just once in seven games.

Incidentally those seven games coincided with Fulham’s best run of form this season. Harrison Reed and Mario Lemina were preferred in central midfield, and while they can not boast anything like Anguissa’s ball carrying numbers, they did offer a more solid and stable screen in front of the reintroduced back-four. Anguissa is able to get forward  more effectively than his fellow central midfielders, and is apparently encouraged to do so by his manager who even pointed to Anguissa “chipping in with his fair share” of goals as the midfielders “next aim”. And while a few goals a season would certainly enhance Frank’s reputation and value to the team, I’m not sure that should be the focus of his development. He has returned to the starting XI in the two fixtures that preceded the latest international break, and it will be interesting to see if he is favoured in the remaining run of games that will ultimately decide the clubs fate in the top tier. There are many teams who would benefit from having Anguissa in their side, but Scott Parker has shown that he is not afraid of making big decisions when it comes to leaving star players on the bench if he feels it is better for the team. Just ask Aleksandar Mitrovic.

Is it fair to demand more attacking output from a player who is generally considered a defensive midfielder, with a willingness to join the attack? Perhaps not. The thing is, if Fulham were scoring more goals, there would likely be less of a burden on Anguissa to provide key attacking moments, and we could sit back and appreciate all of the things he has shown himself to be so adept at. Players in a similar mould to him across the league are not lauded for their goals and assists, but more the control they enable their team to have over the ball. Consider the likes of Tanguy Ndombele at Tottenham and Oriol Romeu at Southampton. The latter’s injury has been a catalyst for his sides regression from their early season in form, despite providing just one goal and one assist in the first 15 games he was available for. Neither of them are renowned for goal contributions, but within their teams, others carry that responsibility.

Fulham are lacking in goal outlets, and Anguissa is having a lot of shots. So far none of them have gone in. He has provided three assists this season, all in instances where he got his head up and released the ball quickly. But have we seen enough of that? It is fair to criticise his shooting, so far he has tested the goalkeeper far to infrequently. The Athletic recently ran an article that showed Anguissa has the lowest xG-per-shot of even the most wasteful players in the league. It tells us that he is taking shots from poor positions as well as failing to strike the ball well enough to threaten the goal. But, in spite of his dribbling statistics, he is primarily a defensive midfielder, ranking highly in the league for interceptions and tackles.

What his dribbles do offer, is space to others. Anguissa’s drives commit opposition players to closing him down and trying to dispossess him. This leads to Fulham attackers finding space, much like the goal Ademola Lookman scored to set the team on their way to the win at The King Power Stadium earlier this season. A ball carry, followed by a through pass that played Lookman in for his crucial strike. But we also see Anguissa hold on to the ball for too long at times, something the impressive numbers don’t show.

He rarely loses the ball, but that doesn’t mean he always does the right thing with it. Some of those dribbles lead to a sideways or backwards pass, when the opportunity for a forward thinking, chance-creating ball has passed. He can often be seen with his head down, holding off opponents as he manipulates the ball out of narrow spaces, however, that approach means he does not always see the movement of those ahead of him. This is where he can improve the most, and if he is able to, could become a lethal weapon in any midfield in world football. It can also be argued, that there a number of occasions that the option of a killer pass is not present, and this falls on the attacking players. We don’t see Fulham players breaking the lines in central areas very often. Mostly the likes of Lookman, and Cavaleiro run beyond the full back in wide areas, and those out-to-in routes that the best attackers take are not always run.

There is little denying that Fulham do have the player that it was hoped had arrived from Marseille ahead of the ill-fated, previous Premier League season, and if this time around is have a different result, Anguissa will have played his part. It does, however, feel like we are witnessing a player who embodies the team he plays for at the moment. Like Fulham, many believe Anguissa is better than the results suggest. He does not look like a player you would expect to find in a relegation battle, and clearly possesses the ability to play at a higher level than he is currently plying his trade. That being said, there is a crucial element to his game that missing, and preventing the full potential of himself and his team to be realised. The final ball, the final-third decision making, the goal contributions. The team can help Anguissa, and Anguissa can help the team. If both can improve their productivity in the elements that decide football matches, both can go on to achieve greater things than just Premier League survival.