Thursday, 9 September 2010

Player Profile: Nicolas Anelka

Nicolas Anelka's career has been a tale of inconsistency and unrest, and it's only really in his late 20s that he's fully blossomed into a top striker. But go back a decade to his time at Arsenal and you have one of the hottest prospects of modern times.

Anelka was signed by Arsene Wenger in February of 97 as a 17 year-old, for a fee of £500k from Paris Saint-Germain. He made his debut coming off the bench in a 3-0 victory over Chelsea in April, but found his playing time limited by Ian Wright's presence.

In the 97/98 season, after a promising start the ageing Wright began to lose his form and fitness, and Anelka was given his chance to shine playing alongside Bergkamp. He didn't disappoint, scoring crucial goals against Coventry, Newcastle and Man Utd - the latter being his first for the club. The fixture against Utd always seemed to bring the best out of Anelka, with the Frenchman bagging 4 goals and 2 assists against them during his Arsenal stay. Anelka quickly made a name for himself as one of the league's top upcoming talents along with Michael Owen, and he finished the 97/98 season on a personal high, hitting the 2nd goal in the 2-0 win over Newcastle in the FA Cup final to add to the league medal he'd won a couple of weeks earlier.

The following season he was entrusted with a regular starting role in Arsenal's attack, starting 34 games in the Premier League. He performed brilliantly, finishing joint 2nd top scorer with 17 goals, just 1 behind Owen and co. For such a young man, his composure was remarkable and he netted away at Old Trafford and White Hart Lane. In total, he scored 8 game openers and hit 6 winners, underlining his knack of scoring when it mattered.

The high point of his season was the home fixture against Leicester in February in which he hit a 1st half hat-trick, becoming one of the youngest to do so in Premier League history. The 6-1 win over Middlesbrough at the Riverside in April is best-remembered for Nwankwo Kanu's audacious backheel goal, but it often overshadows Anelka's excellent performance in which he scored 2 of the goals and set up a further 3. In recognition of his performances, he was rewarded with the PFA Young Player of the Year award at the end of the season.

Anelka was very much the complete modern forward. Tall, pacey and capable of holding his own against bigger defenders, he was physically built for the Premier League. But he was also a very intelligent player, making constant runs into channels, drifting wide, dropping deep and spreading the play around. Not too dissimilar to his successor Thierry Henry, albeit without the dedication and level-headedness of his compatriot - and that's where Anelka's problems lay.

He could have been as good as Henry and built himself a similar legacy, but he squandered his many opportunities by failing to settle down at a single club and chasing the money. The latter may not have been entirely his fault (his two older brothers - also his agents - were rumoured to have been behind most of his major transfers in his early years), but he was certainly guilty of not showing enough application for his many clubs, particularly towards the end of his stay at Arsenal. His constant whining - players not passing the ball to him among others - earned him the nickname "Le Sulk" and when he finally did leave to Real Madrid for a handsome £23m fee, many Arsenal fans were happy to see the back of him.

With the money made from his sale, Arsenal were able to build a brand new training ground and his departure paved the way for the signing of a player who was to become the finest striker of the past decade. So for that I thank him.