Nicolas Anelka stayed for only two years at Arsenal and left in acrimonious circumstances – but what a player and what a signing he was.
Nineteen goals in forty-six appearances for Arsenal might not sound like the record of a player worthy of celebrating more than 20 years on from his signing, but as effectively the prototype for the lone forward which most teams play with today, Anelka had a big impact on English football.
More pertinently, he joined the Gunners for just £500,000 and left for Real Madrid for £22.3million. He is one of the Premier League’s greatest bargains ever.
They had a reputation for bold, brash, dirty – but effective – football, but 13 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).
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.
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)
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 was brought in by Wenger in late February 1997 as nothing other than a centre-forward.
The teenage Anelka was given an eight-month bedding-in period in which he made 10 appearances off the bench before finally making 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 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.
It’s a role he would not surrender, and in 1998-99 Anelka started all but four of Arsenal’s 38 league games, scoring 17 league goals and at times looking 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.
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.
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.
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.