Should Nicolas Anelka have stayed at Arsenal?

West Brom confirmed the signing of Nicolas Anelka this week – his twelfth club since he began his senior professional career at Paris Saint-Germain back in 1996.

The French striker played just one season in the French capital before being signed by Arsene Wenger in 1997 at the age of 18. The long-serving Gunners boss had just arrived himself the year before and Anelka became the first of many players to arrive in North London who went on to become superstars of world football.

His compatriot Patrick Vieira had been the first to arrive from Milan for a fee of around £3.5 million and the future Gunners captain remained for the best years of his career, more than a decade, winning three Premier League titles and four FA Cups.

Anelka stayed just two years after signing for just £500,000 and was sold in 1999 for a whopping £22.3 million to Real Madrid, which is expensive by current standards never mind back then.

His time in the Spanish capital was cumbersome – he stayed for just one season under Vincente del Bosque, at one point becoming intensely unpopular with the fans, the manager and his teammates for refusing to train and was subsequently handed a 45-day suspension by the club. After just one term he was returned back to Paris where he played another two seasons until 2002.

Meanwhile, Arsenal were going through their best period under Arsene Wenger – they won the domestic double in 2002 and again in 2004. Anelka made his way back to England to join Liverpool in 2001 on loan from PSG but won nothing that year. The only trophy he ever won in any of his spells with PSG was the Intertoto Cup in 2000.

He won a Champions League medal with Real Madrid and featured in the 2000 final against Bayern Munich but he failed to really endear himself to the fans, the media or the club itself.

After his loan spell with Liverpool he made a permanent transfer to Manchester City in 2002 where he remained for three years but this was long before the days when City were title challengers and had the deepest pockets in the Premier League and, again, Anelka (26 by this point) failed to really adhere himself to the club or the fans.

He was moved on to Turkish side Fenerbahce for just one season in 2005/06 before returning once more to the Premier League to sign for Bolton Wanderers where he spent two seasons before moving to Chelsea in 2008. His four-year spell with the Blues was his most productive and successful since his time at Arsenal. He seemed, for the first time, to have found his form again. He scored 25 goals for the Blues in his second season at Stamford Bridge in 2008/09 and went on to win two FA Cups and one Premier League in his spell back in London.

Last season, aged 33, the striker moved to Shanghai Shenhua for a reported annual salary of €12 million and was joined later by his former strike-partner at Stamford Bridge Didier Drogba but it seemed neither of the former Blues strikers was settled in Shanghai and both moved on.

Anelka signed for the rest of the season on loan at Juventus but he made just three appearances for the Serie A champions, each time as a late substitute and he scored no goals in that period.

Now, aged 34, Nicolas Anelka returns again to England to sign for his twelfth club overall and his fifth English club. In his career he has won the Premier League twice, once with Arsenal and once with Chelsea, the Champions League with Real Madrid, the Super Lig in Turkey with Fenerbahce, and (technically; although he barely featured) the Serie A title last term with Juventus.

With France he’s won the European Championships in 2000 and the Confederations Cup the following year.

He signed for Arsenal as an 18-year-old and left after just two years but I wonder whether the nomadic striker nicknamed ‘Le Sulk’ might have smiled more often had have remained with the Gunners.

He likely wouldn’t have won as many medals and certainly his spell at Chelsea was his most successful but I wonder whether he’d have wished he’d stayed working under Arsene Wenger. In his last season at Highbury, he scored 17 league goals – a tally which he matched only once in his entire career in 2008/09 with the Blues.

At international level he fell down the pecking order behind Thierry Henry who was brought in by Wenger as Anelka’s replacement in 1999. Henry become ultimately one of France’s greatest ever strikers and won the World Cup in 1998 but Anelka didn’t make the squad.

Nicolas Anelka will likely be remembered as the greatest nomad of his generation but, if he had just stuck around in one place long enough, he could have been so much more. Indeed his goalscoring record shows that to be the case - Nicolas Anelka was at his best when he was at a club for more than two or three years.

image: © Andrea Sartorati

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