By Les Crang
Anelka is maybe the biggest talent I have ever seen. He’s got everything – he’s quick, can beat players and score goals.
But he lacks the most important thing a sportsman needs – the passion to win, passion to do well, passion to succeed and passion to push himself to be better and better. Since he was 19 years old, when he came to Arsenal, he did good things, but not more than this.
I told him when he finishes his career, not many people will remember. I feel sorry about this and it is a pity he doesn’t have the right mentality. He was not at all a problematic player, he always trained well, but not more than this and then went home.
There lies in the rub with Anelka. A man of of tremendous talent and limited social skills. A man who could have been King but he just didn’t seem to have that extra push. A man with a European cup medal, 2 English league titles, 3 F.A cup winners medals, an Italian League title, a Turkish league medal, and a European champions medal with France. Hardly a failure then I suppose, but it always felt he was so much better than that.
I know Anelka divides opinion for some of the reasons above (one ex-player, when asked by a fan what he was like and said ‘he’s a wanker’.) But to me, Anelka represent something more than the player. To me he represents all the good things about Arsene Wenger and all the bad things about Wenger. Although I usually look at players individually and their time at the club, with Anelka I want to look at the importance to Wenger and Arsenal.
Nicolas Anelka, like Thierry Henry as a youngster, went to the elite French academy Clairefontaine. Originally joining his home team Paris Saint Germain, Anelka assumed a pattern he was going to follow throughout his career. Anelka fell out with the team, management and chairman, as they didn’t think so highly of him as he did himself. Having scored against Lens as a sub, Anelka felt that he was a prodigious talent and should be a starter over a French internationals like Patrice Loko and Panamanian Dely Valdes. Despite his fit of pique, Anelka was offered a contract by the PSG sporting director Jean-Michel Moutier – it was an incredible 6 year contract but Anelka decided against it, saying:-
(Moutier) thought I would wisely obey him. It didn’t work like that with me. I’m a Parisian and proud of it, but I had something to say. I want to decide what I do with my life so I decided to leave for Arsenal.
This would be the last time that Anelka would ‘decide what I do with my life’, either by himself or via his brothers.
This would not be the first time that Arsene would come and pick up young talent at a small fee and develop them.
On joining Arsenal for a derisory £500,000, Anelka had two pieces of good fortune. Firstly, when he joined, Arsenal were a team with an influx of French players such as Remi Garde, Emmanuel Petit, Patrick Viera and Gilles Grimandi which all helped so that Anelka didn’t feel too homesick at first. Secondly, in his first season at the club Ian Wright was reaching an age (34) in which injuries started to affect him. Anelka’s first goal though came in his 14th game when he replaced an injured Ian Wright and a suspended Dennis Bergkamp. A game that brought Arsenal to the forefront of a possible title charge. The 3-2 victory over Manchester United at Highbury. Kevin Whitcher wrote of the goal:-
On seven minutes, Nicolas Anelka scored his debut goal for the gunners after a fantastic run and shot by the the returning Marc Overmars had been parried out by Schmeichel. Anelka collected the ball near the edge of the area, turned and hit a blistering near post effort the Danish keeper could not stop.
Anelka, although hardly on fire, scored 9 league and cup goals in Arsenal’s double season. If Anelka is remembered for anything that season, it’s most likely the second goal in the F.A cup final. Fred Atkins wrote of the goal:-
With Arsenal 1-0 ahead and 21 minutes to play, Parlour found Anelka a yard away from his marker, by the centre circle.
His first touch, with his shoulder, controlled the ball and his second brought him a yard of space. With his speed that was all Anelka needed to drill a shot with his right foot under Shay Given’s arm to make it 2-0.
After winning a league and cup double and having made his international debut in April 1998 against Sweden, Anelka looked to be part of the French team in the 1998 world cup. Anelka was up against two other forwards for two places. The name of these forwards? Thierry Henry and David Trezeguet. As a fan, I had heard little of these two and felt Anelka was better and should have gone. Unfortunately for Anelka he was dropped from the final 22 as French manager Jacquet felt Henry was a better fit (Henry also had the support of the under 21 manager Raymond Domench, someone Anelka would see in another World cup). One being told of this :-
As for Anelka, that most enigmatic of footballers, it is beyond doubt that the manner in which the manager broke him the news deeply affected his relationship with the national team. Jacquet made it sound as if, all things considered, to have made the 28th and trained with the seniors had been a ‘bonus’ for the striker, who should thank his lucky stars and walk out with gratitude in his heart. But Anelka, who had finished the season like a rocket with Arsenal, was understandably furious.
Anelka, not for the first time had argued with the management and walked out. On the night of the final, Anelka returned from Paris on an empty train to get back to Arsenal for a first training session.
If the previous season was to show us Anelka first steps, 1998-9 really showed us what a player he was. Although we won nothing, in many ways we we’re a better team than the double team. If anything, to me, Anelka was the catalyst of that team. But why do I say that? Well, in 1998 Manchester United bought possibly their best centre half in Jaap Stam. But Anelka made him look average at best. In the 5 games that Arsenal played Manchester United Anelka scored 3 goals against them, including a goal each in our 3-0 wins in the Charity shield and at Highbury.
Arsenal’s first goal graphically illustrated their counter-attacking potency, Bergkamp flighting a pass from his own half and Anelka sprinting away to score crushingly. The fourth goal, completing the 19-year-old’s hat-trick in 21 minutes, was a triumph of team work, the ball flowing between six red shirts.
People are just now rediscovering the pace in the Premier League but it was Arsene Wenger, first with Anelka and later with Thierry Henry, who built his legacy on the back of rapacious counter attacking football.
Internationally, Anelka came to Wembley with the French team and scored both goals in a 2-0.
As the season came to a climax, I think many fans saw a change in Anelka. A player never known for his exuberance, in season 1998-9 he seemed to become more morose as Arsenal played their best football (better than the double team). Soon, Anelka made the comment in which he said of Marc Overmars:-
I’m not getting enough of the ball. I’m going to see the manager soon because Overmars is too selfish.
As the season came to its conclusion and Arsenal came so close to a double, Anelka seemed to try less. In the F.A cup semi-final Anelka was virtually invisible. Alan Smith commented ‘he began to evade challenges with a tendency to go it alone.
As the summer came around, the writing was on the wall as Anelka and his delightful brothers hankered after a transfer especially after he said in 1999:-
I’m no longer part of Arsenal. To hell with the English people.
By the end of the season Anelka and his brothers were talking to Marseille, Lazio and Real Madrid with Anelka saying ‘the club of my heart is Real Madrid.’ He then said the same about Lazio. Then Juventus. Arsenal wanted rid of him. In the end, Arsene accepted a Real Madrid bid of £22,500,000.
This is another example of Wenger making money off young players to invest in a new squad. It was also the money that allowed Arsene to buy a young striker from Juventus, Thierry Henry, for £13,000,000 and to pay for the training facilities at Colney. Wenger, though, would say even then his biggest regret was he could never get Henry and Anelka together, which he tried between between 1997-9.
Anelka went to Real Madrid, scoring semi-final goals against Bayern as Real Madrid won the European cup. Anelka again sulked, moved back to PSG for £22,000,000. Sulked and lost PSG when he was sold to Manchester City for £9,000,000 after being loaned to Liverpool (and arguing with manager Gerard Houllier). On his return to to Highbury, against the invincible side, Anelka was roundly booed. Better still he was sent off against us after scoring a consolation goal, with the BBC reporting:-
There was still a sting to the game, as City pulled a goal back in injury time through Anelka’s powerful strike.
Anelka’s attempts to retrieve the ball from the back of the net sparked a melee, in which Lehmann and Ashley Cole got involved.
It ended with Anelka shown a red card for raising his hands, and Cole booked for holding on to the ball.
City then moved him to Fenerbahce and then he returned to England and played for Bolton. In the season of 2007-8 Anelka was on fire and looking for a move. In a recent article Jon Spurling entitled January is a time to Invest he pointed out that Arsene should have signed him in 2008, after Eduardo and RVP injury that season. Instead, he went to Chelsea. Then in march we played them in a must win game at Stamford Bridge. After Sagna scored the opening goal, Avram Grant bought on Anelka who pulled the game around, setting up two goals for Didier Drogba. Arsenal finished third after leading up to January (sound familiar?). Another instance of Wenger not willing to risk buying for the final push.
But if Anelka’s remembered for anything its his constant fighting managers and gaining the nickname ‘le sulk’. Exhibit one. The 2008 European cup final and Avram Grant puts Anelka on for the last 10 minutes after Drogba is sent off. In the penalty shoot out, Frank ask him to be a penalty taker. Anelka saying :-
That’s out of the question. I have come on basically as a right back and you want me to take a penalty?
Anelka missed his penalty, allowing United to win the European cup.
Go f*** yourself, you dirty little w****.*
He then flew home to London and retired from international football.
Although Anelka is now at West Brom and in trouble for the anti-semitic Quenelle gesture, I often wonder about Anelka. I remember when he joined, I was mesmerized by his speed and elegance. But I was also amazed at how disinterested he was. He seemed to hate playing football (he once said ‘i’m no Ian Wright’ in that he was not as expressive). I loved Anelka, and I felt he was a better forward than Henry because of his elegance and gazelle like movements.
As for Wenger, Anelka embodies his good points. The buying and selling of young talent at the right time. Investing the money in players and the club. Changing the style of strikers to suit the team (for example, Pires was an improvement on Overmars for Henry, but Overmars worked fine for Anelka). But he also was the man Wenger should have signed in 2007-8 season to push us to a title. Its such a shame.
*I actually can’t stand Domenech. A terrible manager and tactician. A man a lot of French players and fans had wanted to say to him for ages.