The steepness of Joachim Andersen’s developmental trajectory has always been premised on his ball-playing ability. Although the Dane has other tools at his disposal, his talent for breaking the lines from the defensive third underscores his value tactically and individually.
Andersen, now of Crystal Palace, first caught the attention of scouts from Europe’s top clubs while playing in his native Denmark for FC Copenhagen’s academy. After two years in the School of Excellence, he moved west to FC Midtjylland, where he continued his education under the watchful eye of the Ulvene’s technical staff.
Quickly, the 6’4” centre-back outgrew his surroundings in Ikast – where Midtjylland’s academy is based. He trialed with FC Twente in April 2013 and signed with the Dutch outfit four months later in a transfer worth €650,000.
Andersen, a 17-year-old with no senior experience to his name at the time, adjusted to life in Enschede rapidly. He was promoted from Twente’s youth set-up to their reserve team two months into his first season with the club and made 21 Eerste Divisie appearances in his rookie year.
In 2014-15, his climb up the ladder was again expedited. Andersen split his time between Twente’s first team and reserves, a sign of his progress in the Netherlands. Two seasons as a key player in the Eredivisie would follow before a well-deserved switch to Serie A’s Sampdoria.
In Il Doria, Andersen found the perfect match. He flourished under Marco Giampaolo’s leadership, demonstrating his ball-playing ability in a big five league for the first time.
“I’ve learned a lot from him and I’m very happy that he’s my coach,” Andersen said of Giampolo in 2019. “He’s one of the reasons I came here because I knew he was a great coach. He’s someone who really takes care of the smallest details. For me, that’s very important as a defender. I don’t know what the future holds, I’m just thinking about doing my best.”
While the Dane’s performances in Italy weren’t flawless, his lack of footspeed was ruthlessly exposed at times, they were impressive enough to warrant interest from across the continent and saw him compared to Milan Škriniar.
“I’ve read and heard these comparisons many times before, but they don’t bother me,” Andersen told Sky Sport Italia at the time. “I’m my own person, even if I understand the comparisons because we’ve played for the same club at a young age and, like me, didn’t play at first. Now he’s continuing to grow and becoming a great player. I hope to take the same route as him.”
Struggles at Lyon and Loan Switch to Fulham
It wasn’t until Andersen moved to Lyon at the start of 2019-20 that he experienced adversity. Signed for a club-record €30 million fee, his flaws were swiftly exposed in Ligue 1 after he was asked to take on more defensive responsibilities.
Under increased scrutiny, the Dane’s aggressive style came unstuck when left isolated one-v-one in Rudi Garcia’s fluid system. Andersen, prone to roaming out of position to hustle ball carries and target forwards, failed to live up to expectations with Lyon and fell down the depth chart.
Moving on loan to Fulham in 2020-21 was thus a successful project in self-reclamation for Andersen. Despite the Cottagers’ defensive struggles and eventual relegation back to the second tier, he made the most of his time under Scott Parker, using his offensive weaponry to full effect in the Premier League.
His ability to play long, diagonal passes came in clutch in a 1-0 win over Sheffield United in February 2021. It was an Andersen pass that set up Ademola Lookman’s winning goal, a move that caught the eye of his manager.
“He’s been vital to the style we want to play,” Parker said. “You need ball-playing defenders — we’ve got that in all our defenders really. He has been immense since walking in the building, a top player that has been pivotal to what we’ve done and his distribution, his assist for the goal was first class as well.”
However, his impressive form in the Premier League with Fulham wasn’t enough to convince decision-makers in Lyon to hand him another opportunity at the Parc Olympique.
Instead, he was shipped off to Crystal Palace for an initial fee of €17.5 million with a further €2.5 million and a 12.5 percent sell-due further down the line.
Defensive Progression at Selhurst Park
For Patrick Vieira’s new-look Palace, Andersen was an obvious choice. At just 25, he still has the best years of his career ahead of him and possesses the qualities required to excel in a ball-playing role under the Frenchman.
What’s more, the Denmark international is relishing his second look at life in the Premier League. “The way we approach the games is with an attacking mindset and a front-foot mindset,” Andersen told The Independent in November.
“This is obviously something Palace had to change in their mentality over the last couple of years because they played differently, but now we are trying to change that and it is already working well.”
Since making the switch to Selhurst Park, Andersen has continued to use his technical ability to make an impact on the transition while also sharpening up the defensive side of his game. He is comfortable playing alongside central defensive partner Marc Guehi – and it shows up on the eye test and in the numbers.
While ball-playing remains the strongest utensil in Andersen’s toolkit, he has made improvements elsewhere. The 25-year-old has mellowed in the defensive third, making fewer pressures per 90 in 2021-22 than in the previous two seasons.
Complemented with Guehi’s fleet footedness, Andersen’s less aggressive approach to defending has allowed him to cut out some of the missteps that plagued his time in Ligue 1. That said, he still only averages 1.2 tackles completed per 90.
He does, however, continue to read the play well. Andersen makes 2.13 interceptions and 5.82 clearances per 90 – both above-average clips. He also performs strongly in aerial duels, winning a team-leading 68.7% of his contests.
Andersen remains an elite ball-progressor from central defence. With 15.73 long passes completed per 90, he ranks in the 89th percentile of players of his position from Europe’s big five leagues. He also ranks in the 90th percentile for total progressive passing distance on the season (424.66 yards).
However, ball retention remains a second thought to Andersen. His 83.3% pass completion rate ranks him in the bottom half of big five league centre-backs – although this should be attributed to the ambitiousness of the passes he attempts and the creative license Vieira has handed him.
In sum, the Dane’s switch to Crystal Palace has been a major success story for Vieira and the club’s recruitment department. They identified an area of need, targeted a player with Premier League experience, and flawlessly integrated him into the first team.
Of course, Andersen has benefited from the transfer too. He’s back to his best, enjoying life with his new club, and is set up for a bright future. Crystal Palace is the perfect fit for him – and he knows it.
“It is the way I have been playing for the majority of my career, this style, and I really enjoy playing football like this,” he said of life under Vieira. “It has been easy for me to settle in and Marc is easy to play alongside because he is a top player, so I am really enjoying my football with him and the whole team.”
Andersen’s ball-playing ability continues to set him apart, even in the Premier League. With many years at the top level ahead of him, the best is yet to come from the Danish centre-back. His ceiling, as predicted by Twente’s scouts almost a decade ago, is very high indeed.
By: Luke James / @LukeJames_32
Featured Image: @GabFoligno / Sebastian Frej / MB Media / Getty