Unusually among footballers, André-Frank Zambo Anguissa enters our Zoom meeting on time. It might be in keeping with his demeanour – polite, friendly and engaged – but it is somewhat out of kilter with his career arc. “I arrived late,” he says of coming into the professional game.
That is true by modern standards but having developed “in the streets, playing after school with my friends every single day” in his home city of Yaoundé, Cameroon, rather than being hothoused in an academy, Fulham are reaping the benefits of his less-than-linear path. The 25-year-old is one of the surprises of this fluctuating Premier League season, a beacon of consistency in a sea of oscillating performers.
Zambo Anguissa thinks he nailed that at Villarreal, where he was loaned after Fulham were relegated in 2019. “It was so specific in terms of pressing and passing," lui dice, “and the coach [Javi Calleja] disse: ‘If you can’t do it exactly as I want it, don’t worry – I’ve plenty of other good players who know how to do it.’
“Everyone knew how to play. It made me progress so much more in terms of what I demanded of myself, and in terms of concentration. I knew that if I didn’t do the work, there was somebody there to take my place.”
When Calleja told him towards the end of the season that he was proud of him it felt good.
Not that the Cameroon international midfielder is just about graft. Opta revealed that only four players in Europe’s leading five leagues have managed more dribbles than Zambo Anguissa – a table led by Adama Traoré and Lionel Messi. In the season Zambo Anguissa spent in La Liga, only Messi and Nabil Fekir completed more dribbles than him. “The statistics are flattering,” he says with a smile, “but it’s about the work you do for the team.”
As a youngster he was always a proficient dribbler – “It’s the story of my childhood” – but he only started to think about the possibility of football becoming a career, lui dice, when aged 14 he met his agent, Maxime Nana, in one of the annual G8 trials Nana sets up in Mbankomo, to the south-west of Cameroon’s capital.
Zambo Anguissa was spotted there by Jean-Philippe Durand, the former Marseille midfielder (e 1993 Champions League winner) who was then working for the club as a recruiter, but when he made the move to Europe at 18 it was not directly to Marseille but north to Reims.
Zambo Anguissa toughed out a steep learning curve with no route into the first team, but Durand stayed in touch. “Even when he was in Marseille and I was at Reims," lui dice. “He would make the [800km] trip to come and see me playing for the reserves in the DH [fourth tier]. It’s not everyone who does that for you.”
Zambo Anguissa was, in the words of Rudi Garcia, one of his former Marseille coaches, with whom he still exchanges messages, “doing his formation [academy training] as a professional”. He learned a lot tactically under Franck Passi, who had been Marcelo Bielsa’s assistant when he was at the club. “He was someone who knew how to channel my energies,” says Zambo Anguissa.
“I was a young player who ran a lot, who gave everything, but who was sometimes a bit clumsy. I wanted to do everything – to dribble, to carry the ball, everything. He understood that I was coming from Africa and just said to take the time to find your feet, do the simple things well.
“At first it was hard for me to accept. I knew I had other things to offer to the team and I felt restricted. But he told me what I needed to hear at the time. Egli ha detto: ‘You’ll have the moment to express yourself and show us everything you can do.’”
Later encouraged to build on his grounding in the holding role by Garcia, Zambo Anguissa was a mainstay of the Marseille team that went to the 2018 Europa League final. Though they were well beaten by Atlético Madrid, it convinced Fulham to lay out a club-record fee of £30m for him shortly after.
“I know a lot of people wondered why I was leaving Marseille," lui dice. “A huge club in France that played in Europe for a team that was playing to stay up in the Premier League. It’s about going step by step. Some young players might go straight to Tottenham, Manchester United or wherever, they don’t really know the league and they get burned.”
Zambo Anguissa’s diligence has worked for him, taking something from every coach, with Calleja’s box-to-box role for him at Villarreal supercharging his return to England.
“Over there I found an attacking freedom that I could make the most of, as well as defensive discipline," lui dice. “When you can combine those two things in the Premier League, it helps you out.”
That first season in London had been tough – arriving after pre-season, with injuries and a revolving cast of coaches and players muddying the waters. “The team is much more solid than before," lui dice. “What we’ve done this season is not insignificant. We’ve had the confidence to play, to pass the ball, against good teams.
“Scott Parker knows how to make the players feel good, to feel confident. He always finds the words to get through to us. If he tells you it’s possible, you believe it’s possible.”
With Zambo Anguissa catching the eye on a weekly basis, it is difficult to put a limit on just what is possible for him.