Nicolas Anelka at Arsenal: Frenchman's explosive breakthrough remembered

On this day in 1997, Arsenal confirmed the signing of a young striker named Nicolas Anelka from Paris Saint-Germain.

His explosive impact during the subsequent two-and-a-half-year spell in north London catapulted him from unknown teenager to one of the world’s most thrilling attacking talents.

There would be highs, lows and plenty of controversy to come, but Anelka’s time at Arsenal showed him at his devastating best, earning him a £22.3m move to Real Madrid in 1999 and banking the Gunners a huge profit on the £500,000 they paid for him.

Anelka was Arsene Wenger’s first official signing as Arsenal manager, arriving at the club as a 17-year-old in February 1997.

He featured sparingly in the second half of the 1996/97 season, his only four appearances coming from the bench in Premier League meetings with Chelsea, Coventry, Newcastle and Derby County. But it didn’t take him long to establish himself.


A change of shirt numbers hinted at what was to come. Anelka had been given the No 11 shirt when he first arrived at Arsenal, but Wenger saw enough in those fleeting early appearances to hand him the No 9 ahead of his first full season at the club.

Two months later, he marked his first Premier League start at Highbury with his first goal, a thunderous, low strike which beat Peter Schmeichel at his near post and helped Arsenal on their way to a 3-2 win over reigning champions Manchester United.

Anelka got his chance that day due to an injury to Dennis Bergkamp but it was Ian Wright who he ended up replacing in the longer term.

Wright, 33 at the time, had become Arsenal’s record goalscorer with his hat-trick against Bolton only a few weeks earlier but in January he suffered an injury which sidelined him for several months in the second half of the season.

Anelka stepped up in his absence, scoring a further eight goals in all competitions, the last of which came in the FA Cup final win over Newcastle, securing a famous double following Arsenal’s Premier League title triumph a fortnight earlier.

Wright watched on as an unused substitute that afternoon at Wembley and Wenger’s faith in Anelka became even clearer when the club legend was allowed to depart to West Ham that summer.

It was time for Anelka to take centre stage and, while Arsenal’s 1998/99 season was a disappointing one, Manchester United pipping them to the title by a single point and famously beating them in the FA Cup semi-finals too, the Frenchman’s remarkable progress continued.

There were 19 goals in all competitions, making him Arsenal’s top scorer, and many of them were spectacular. Anelka, electrifyingly fast and devastatingly direct, was also a complete striker capable of scoring in different ways.

There was the stunning long-range effort to clinch a 1-0 win over Everton in November 1998, unleashed with his weaker foot from a diagonal angle.

Then, in a 1-1 draw with Middlesbrough a few weeks after that, he plucked a looping Remi Garde pass out of the air with his left foot before slotting home with his right from eight yards out.

That goal was Bergkamp-esque in its execution and Anelka also had a knack for rounding goalkeepers in one-on-ones, his skill and composure allowing him to slide the ball into an empty net rather than risk his effort being saved.

There were more eye-catching moments in the remaining months of the season, his performances over the course of the campaign earning him the prestigious the PFA Young Player of the Year award, but his relationship with English football was becoming strained.

The teenager, already nicknamed “Le Sulk” due to his non-smiling demeanour, described himself as “bored” with life in London in a newspaper interview in the second half of the campaign and announced he didn’t intend to see out his contract at Arsenal.

And so it proved, with the move to Real Madrid materialising not long afterwards. Wenger had defended Anelka amid public criticism and did not want him to depart, but Arsenal would use the funds generated by his sale to sign a certain Thierry Henry.

Henry’s arrival ensured Anelka was not missed in the years ahead and the youngster struggled to live up to expectations in the Spanish capital. But even all these years later, few young players have lit up the Premier League quite like Anelka did at Arsenal.

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