A tribute to young Nicolas Anelka at Arsenal, one of the best transfers ever


Nicolas Anelka stayed only two years at Arsenal and left in acrimonious circumstances – but what a player and what a transfer.

We celebrate all sorts of players and teams on Planet Football. We regularly pay tribute to Legends of the game, but we also honour Cult Heroes that are loved for slightly different reasons, and Fallen Giants that are no longer the force they once were.

We are also working our way through the small group of One-Game Wonders players with a solitary Premier League appearance to their name, and now we’re giving acclaim to the players that cost their club pittances but were worth fortunes, the Bargain Buys that can make a scout a hero.

Next up, Nicolas Anelka.

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The problem

Arsene Wenger’s reputation as English football’s great moderniser is well-earned, but it took him some time.

Although he inherited the side from Bruce Rioch, the Arsenal that Wenger walked into was really still just George Graham’s side, plus Dennis Bergkamp and David Platt.

They had a reputation for bold, brash, dirty – but effective – football, and with the improved fitness and conditioning that Wenger insisted on when he arrived at Highbury, they were a true force to be reckoned with.

However, time was against them. Thirteen players started at least 15 Premier League games for Arsenal in 1996-97, and only four of them were under 30: Paul Merson (28), Bergkamp (27), Ray Parlour (23) and Patrick Vieira (20).

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READ: A tribute to Dennis Bergkamp: Arsenal legend and ultimate football genius

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This was both a problem and an opportunity for Wenger. Yes, he had to get young players in as a matter of urgency, but get the right ones and he could transform Arsenal from a scrappy outfit with a poor disciplinary record into the fluid, beautiful team he’d always wanted to build.

The obvious place to start was up front: Ian Wright turned 33 during the 1996-97 season, and while he was still scoring with incredible regularity, it is clearly easier to replace one striker than it is to bed in four defenders or midfielders.

A young successor for Wright, then, was top of the agenda.

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What they could have had

In 1997, £500,000 would have got you:

– 7% of Stan Collymore (Liverpool to Aston Villa, £7m)

– 16% of John Hartson (Arsenal to West Ham, £3.2m)

– 22% of Paul Kitson (Arsenal to West Ham, £2.3m)

– 50% of John Ebrell (Everton to Sheffield United, £1m)

– 67% of Ged Brannan (Tranmere Rovers to Manchester City, £750k) or Kevin Davies (Chesterfield to Southampton, £750k)

– 91% of Gordon Watson (Southampton to Bradford, £550k)

– Marcus Browning (Bristol Rovers to Huddersfield, £500k) or Nick Henry (Oldham to Sheffield United, £500k)

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The signing

Nicolas Anelka himself admits he has few friends in football, but he counts Vieira and Thierry Henry among them. All three grew up in inhospitable banlieues in otherwise-wealthy parts of Paris – Vieira and Anelka in Trappes, at roughly eight o’clock on the city map, and Henry in nearby Les Ulis, at 7 o’clock.

That’s nearby as the crow flies, but it is indicative of the crippling social and economic isolation of these tower block-dominated suburbs that despite being just 10 miles apart, it would take you nearly two hours to get between them via public transport.

It is telling of Anelka’s character that he would forge a rare social connection with two men who understand that kind of isolation; he has always been an outsider.

However, there is one other constant in Anelka’s career, and that is talent.

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Even when he signed from Paris Saint-Germain at just 17 years old, Anelka had the ideal physical traits for a centre forward: tall and lightning fast, good with both feet, and thought.

His greatest gift, though, was his finishing ability. Typically, players with his speed would prioritise getting clear of defences and curl to the bottom corner, but Anelka was capable of absolutely smashing the ball towards goal with incredible accuracy.

Contrary to, say, Michael Owen or Theo Walcott, Anelka tended to like to get his shot away as early as possible, scoring a surprising number of goals from just outside the box, finding the bottom corner with one of his powerful precision drives.

It is easy to see why Anelka fancied himself as a midfielder rather than as a centre-forward, but his athleticism and early-career proclivity for head-down running meant he stayed at centre-forward for his whole career, bar a short deeper spell with Fenerbahce.

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After arriving at Arsenal in late February 1997, the teenage Anelka was given an eight-month bedding-in period in which he made 10 appearances off the bench. The Frenchman was finally handed his first Arsenal start in a shock 3-0 defeat at Derby County on November 1, deputising for Bergkamp, who was serving a three-match ban.

His second start the following week was a happier one, as he opened the scoring in a stellar 3-2 victory over title rivals Manchester United that proved decisive in Arsenal’s title win, with the Gunners finishing just a point ahead of Alex Ferguson’s side that season.

Anelka would have to wait until after Christmas for his next appearance in Wenger’s starting eleven – in at the deep end again for a 1-1 draw at Spurs – but when Ian Wright picked up an injury that kept him out for almost the rest of the season two weeks later, Anelka became Wenger’s first-choice striker, a role he would not subsequently surrender.

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READ: What Makes A Club: 21 photos that explain the essence of Arsenal

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1998-99 was Anelka’s true breakthrough season. He started all but four of Arsenal’s 38 league games as a role reversal saw them finish just a point behind treble winners Manchester United. Anelka scored 17 league goals and at times looked completely unstoppable.

He maintained his 100% scoring record in starting appearances against United by scoring a goal in each of the home and away ties, and in both October and February of that season he scored in all four of Arsenal’s league games.

Those two months alone yielded 10 goals in eight games.

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The legacy

Though it wasn’t recognised as such at the time, with Bergkamp just behind him and Marc Overmars and Ray Parlour playing either side, Anelka was effectively signed to play as a lone striker in the 4-2-3-1 system that would become ubiquitous years later.

As such, he helped pave the way for the likes of Didier Drogba, Fernando Torres, and Henry – who was signed as Anelka’s immediate successor at Arsenal when he left for Real Madrid in a £22.3million deal in summer 1999.

The Madrid move didn’t work out, however, and after leaving Arsenal as one of the hottest properties in world football, it took years for Anelka to find a top club willing to use his talents, more often pitching up at teams playing around seventh or eighth in the table.

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It was at Chelsea that he finally enjoyed the renaissance his talent had always promised to bring at the highest level. Anelka moved to Stamford Bridge from Bolton in 2008 – nine years after he had left Highbury.

His first season did not end happily, with Edwin Van Der Sar decisively saving Anelka’s penalty in Manchester United’s shootout victory in the Champions League final.

But Anelka came back better than ever, winning the Premier League Golden Boot in 2008-09 in his first full season at the club. He would enjoy two-and-a-half more years at Chelsea, scoring 59 times for the Blues as he helped them to win two FA Cups and the 2010 Premier League title.

Of course, Anelka being Anelka, even after leaving Chelsea at 32 years old he had time to fit in four more clubs. He would retire in 2015 having represented 12 clubs in a 19-year career.

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That nomadism earned Anelka something of a bad reputation, not helped by his two agent brothers’ sometimes outrageous public proclamations.

However, taken in isolation, each one of Anelka’s moves was justifiable: His sale to Real Madrid was an opportunity few players would pass up but the club totally failed to help him settle in Spain; Liverpool preferred to sign El-Hadji Diouf than give Anelka a permanent contract after a successful loan spell; he left Manchester City for Fenerbahce because he wanted to live in a country that reflected his religious faith, having converted to Islam the year before; and so on.

Unsurprisingly, Anelka counts Eric Cantona, Diego Maradona, and Mike Tyson amongst his personal heroes, all characters with problematic pasts but whose headstrong and individualistic approach inspires the introverted Anelka.

As Simon Kuper noted in an enlightening 2008 interview with the striker, this put Anelka at odds with football’s “one of the lads” culture. Several interviewers note that his English remained unusually faltering despite his many years playing in the Premier League.

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READ: Nicolas Anelka: Underappreciated because he didn’t smile enough?

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There is no inherent problem with these character traits in the analysis of a man, as Daniel Storey wrote in his tribute to Anelka.

But being so insular in a game where team spirit and groupthink are held so highly, and where the media are desperate to get you in front of a microphone at every turn, is always going to lead to serious misunderstandings and frustrations from both parties.

Taking these facts together makes you wonder whether his reputation as a mercenary was the result of his agent brothers filling the vacuum of Anelka’s silence with the language they themselves spoke: money.

In hindsight, perhaps Anelka wouldn’t have gone to Real Madrid after just two years at Arsenal. Perhaps if he had stayed it would be him, and not Henry, who is cast in bronze outside the Emirates.

But just £500,000 for those two-and-a-half years Arsenal got – just £17,857 per goal – was still an incredible bargain in anyone’s book.

By Steven Chicken

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