Friday, October 15, 2010
Anelka doing his talking on the pitch
ESPN analyst Kevin Keegan is one of English football's most respected figures and he will be writing for ESPNsoccernet throughout the season. As a player, Kevin represented Liverpool with distinction, winning numerous titles in domestic and European football, and was twice named European Footballer of the Year during his time at Hamburg. Kevin has managed England, Newcastle United, Manchester City and Fulham and is one of the most respected voices in the English game.
Chelsea have been running riot in front of goal this season, with Didier Drogba and Florent Malouda tearing Premier League defences apart, but perhaps the most pleasing element of this all-conquering Blues side is the typically unassuming but very effective input from Nicolas Anelka. He is quietly fulfilling the potential that he showed when he first came onto the scene as a raw teenager at Arsenal.
Nicolas has always been happy to let others occupy the limelight, despite what his track record with the media would suggest. It doesn't bother him one bit whether it is his name on the scoresheet or if it is Didier Drogba who is the centre of attention. He has never been the type of player who wants to go out and score goals - there is more to his game than that. Although it is natural to think he could have achieved more with his ability given that Chelsea is the eighth club of an eventful career, this very talented player appears to have found his way again at Stamford Bridge.
Chelsea will certainly benefit from his enforced international exile; after all, his France career is over. If you are in your 30s and receive an 18-game ban you aren't going to be playing again - they may as well have just banned him for life. I'm sure there were another six or seven players in the World Cup camp who had a problem, but a much-publicised row with Raymond Domenech erupted and he was made a scapegoat as a result.
Deep down, there is a player and a man who will want to show France what they are missing. Chelsea could reap the benefits of that as they continue their relentless title challenge.
I had the pleasure of managing Nicolas at Manchester City between 2002 and 2005. He had been on loan at Liverpool and they opted not to sign him, so I stepped in. I don't know what reason Gerard Houllier had when he instead decided to bring in El Hadji Diouf prior to the 2002 World Cup, because Nicolas did quite well at Anfield and was certainly disappointed to be denied a permanent move to Liverpool. He was quite happy there. Perhaps Gerard Houllier will be reminded of that decision when his Aston Villa side face Chelsea on Saturday.
Before finalising a £13 million transfer from Paris Saint Germain, I consulted John Toshack, who had coached him during a difficult period at Real Madrid, and he advised me that to get the best out of Nicolas you should not be afraid to deploy him as a lone striker as he is more than happy to play alone. Most centre-forwards would feel isolated and ask for support, but Nicolas didn't. He liked space to run into and he is the quickest player I have ever seen - as a player or manager.
In fact he was happy occupying his own space both on and off the pitch. I managed him for two-and-a-half years and I barely knew Nicolas much more on the day he left compared to the day he arrived. It has been said on many occasions, but he is a very private individual. He came in for training, was never late, always put in a good shift and you could never accuse him of failing to display the correct attitude. He is not an extrovert but he does have a good sense of humour.
It was difficult to know what to expect when we brought him to City. He had moved around a bit and people said 'There's no smoke without fire'. His brothers were supposed to be a problem too, but I never saw his brothers, and if I did then I didn't know who they were. Nicolas was never a problem for me at all. At Manchester City he did just about everything we asked of him, and scored plenty of goals.
It always seemed as though he could destroy defenders at will; he did it in training and did it in matches. At Manchester City, Nicolas averaged 0.43 goals per game in the league, which is the best ratio he has enjoyed at any club throughout his career.
He moved on to Fenerbahce and Turkey, which often seems to be a brief stop for players. When he returned to England to join Bolton in August 2006, it was suggested that his career was only going one way. Suddenly, though, the Chelsea opportunity arose and it has been perfect for him. Now he is doing all his talking on the pitch.