Arsenal stay would have helped Anelka become one of Europe’s best

Ryan Benson

‘Continuity’ and ‘consistency’ are buzzwords which are thrown around a lot in football. They aren’t always achieved, but regularly they are considered to be potential catalysts for success, particularly when people talk about managerial reigns.

However, managers aren’t the only ones who can profit from such philosophical approaches. It is, perhaps, something that more players should consider, particularly when they are held accountable far less than their respective coaches. Patience isn’t a bad thing.

For example, young players often jump at the first chance of a move to a bigger club and then frequently it doesn’t work out as hoped, resulting in something of a slide into mediocrity. What would have happened had that player just stayed and enjoyed another season of first-team football?

One candidate who could have perhaps benefited from such a mature outlook is Nicolas Anelka.

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Of course, Anelka went on to have a very good career, winning the Premier League and FA Cup with Arsenal and Chelsea, while he was also a part of the Real Madrid squad which clinched the 1999-00 Champions League title. His trophy cabinet certainly has plenty in it, but as an individual player he surely could have been better than he was.

It seems like such a long time ago since Anelka starred for Arsenal – of course it’s easy to forget considering his rather nomadic career. But it was at Highbury where he truly looked capable of becoming one of the best in the world.

Initially first-team appearances were sporadic after joining as a 17-year-old, but he enjoyed a breakthrough campaign in 1997-98 thanks in part to an injury to Ian Wright, and he helped Arsenal to the league and cup double.

The following season he scored 17 league goals in 35 appearances, but it was a frustrating season for Arsenal. They failed to defend their Premier League crown, while Anelka – despite going on to pick up the PFA Young Players of the Year gong – was nicknamed Le Sulk for a perceived lack of interest.

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He ended up departing for Real Madrid in August 1999 for £22million – a figure which would still look high for a 20-year-old even today – in a move which he claims came about due to the British press’ treatment of him.

His Madrid stay was fairly brief, though. After falling out with coach Vicente del Bosque – and getting suspended by their president – Anelka headed back to Paris Saint-Germain, whom Arsenal had originally signed him from.

But that move didn’t go to plan either and he was loaned to Liverpool in January 2002, before signing a permanent deal later that summer with Manchester City, where he remained for two-and-a-half years. Then came his 18 months at Fenerbahce, became Bolton Wanderers came calling.

It was a Bolton where he seemed to mature, becoming a key leadership figure in a struggling team and performing well, reigniting his international career with France and persuading Chelsea to spend £15m on him in January 2008. There he remained for four years, finally getting somewhere close to realising his potential.

His 19-goal Premier League haul in 08-09 earned him a place in the PFA Team of the Year and saw him finish as the division’s top scorer. They also won the FA Cup that season, a feat they replicated the following year alongside the league title.

Anelka’s Chelsea stay hints at what might have been for him. Yes, this was a particularly strong period in his career and never before had he been such an important figure – in terms of both talent and experience – but there is no doubt that his nomadic twenties set him back.

Imagine if he had stuck things out at Arsenal and remained, we could be talking about how Arsenal dominated the Premier League for almost ten years with Thierry Henry and Anelka leading the line. Alas, we can only speculate about the levels he might have reached, but there’s no question that he would have been a significantly better player with ‘continuity’ under Arsene Wenger.

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