He's the starting central midfielder for a perennial African powerhouse and a World Cup quarterfinalist. He's still just 23 but has already amassed 43 caps for his country and drawn rave reviews, not just in South Africa but at the last two Africa Cups of Nations. So the question is: why does Anthony Annan still ply his trade in Norway?
No disrespect intended, but Annan has played in Europe for four years, which means scouts have had plenty of time to evaluate him. And yet, he's still there, at Rosenborg, a powerhouse in Norway, but a relative backwater continent-wide.
Add him to the category of players who thrive in a system. He's Ghanaian soccer's answer to Gino Torretta. He gets plenty of praise for the work he does for Ghana and, to a slightly lesser degree, Rosenborg too but, for whatever reason, the powers that be don't believe he can go to the next level. Or, more accurately, they don't believe in Annan enough to put up the kind of money required to move him from Norway (Rosenberg values him in the $7-million range). Not yet anyway.
The knock on Annan is that -- as one scout put it -- he's "one-dimensional". He's one-paced and at just 5-foot-9, doesn't dominate the middle of the park physically. He's an adequate passer who can keep the ball, but comes up short in terms of both the creativity to spot a pass and the technique to pull it off. And while he's gutsy, plays with gusto and reads the game well, he's not really going to progress.
All of that may be true. But put him in a Ghana shirt, stick him in the middle of the park and witness the transformation. Simply put, Annan is the pilot light that keeps the Ghanaian fire burning.
Who has Kevin Prince Boateng's back when he goes on his marauding --and sometimes ill-advised runs? Annan.
Who ensures that playmaker Kwadwo Asamoah has steady service? Annan.
Who shields John Mensah and Isaac Vorsah in central defence? Annan.
Get the picture? In fact, sometimes you feel as if there are several Annans on the pitch, such is the phenomenal ground he covers.
In fact, there is just one, doing his Clark Kent thing, from middling role player in a middling league to midfield dynamo on one of Africa's strongest teams. It works within Ghana's system because the qualities of the players around him are so clearly defined. Annan complement his teammates perfectly. He'll team up with the Boateng, providing the mobility to match his teammate's muscle defensively while doing double duty when the big man goes forward. Equally, his presence and selflessness allows Asamoah to do what he does best: create. Put Annan next to two different midfielders -- however good -- and the result might well be different. At least that's what the scouts seem to think.
But in Ghana's system, he's invaluable. The wingers -- usually Prince Tagoe and Andre Ayew stay wide, funnelling opponents inside, where he can clog the passing lanes, pick up loose balls and deliver the odd crunching tackle. His knack for being in the right place at the right time means he can "mop up" when the somewhat chaotic Boateng wreaks havoc. It would be a stretch to suggest Ghana's system is predicated upon Annan. But it's no exaggeration to say it would not work nearly as well without him.
When we speak of "specialists" in the game we usually mean goalkeepers. But Annan is part of a different breed, the defensive midfielder, charged not just with winning the ball but dictating the restart after a change of possession It's what some call the (Claude) Makelele position. And many teams at this World Cup have a guy in that role, from Brazil (Gilberto Silva) to Argentina (Javier Mascherano) to Holland (Nigel De Jong). Not all systems call for it, but if your tactics do require this kind of player, not having one can be rather costly. Just ask England. Fabio Capello held out hope for two years that Owen Hargeraves, a true specialist, would be fit for South Africa 2010. Without him, he had to adapt Gareth Barry to the role. And we saw the results against Germany: a 1-4 thumping and the English back four torn apart by Mesut Ozil playing between the lines.
You could say Annan's uber-specialization works against him. To some degree, ti's true, why tie up money in a guy who might not be able to perform if you change your system? But maybe another reason he has yet to taste the big time at club level has to do with his athleticism. He's no Michael Essien, he's a guy who does the little things well and relies on brains and guile as much as God-given gifts. And to scouts, that's an immediate turnoff.
Jorge Valdano once told me that there's "being able to play football well" and "knowing how to play football well." Ideally, you'd have both, but, absent that luxury, it's interesting how scouts drool over the former and discount the latter. (And it's not just in soccer as anyone who has read Michael Lewis' Moneyball will confirm). Annan simply knows how to play the game well. So maybe it's not enough for scouts from big clubs, but right now, that's all that matters to Ghana fans.