Why frustrated Anelka is firing blanks

A month after Aimé Jacquet decided against including a precocious young Nicolas Anelka in his final squad for the 1998 World Cup, L’Équipe went to visit the then Arsenal striker in Trappes, the town just half an hour outside of Paris he calls home.

They found him watching France’s second round match against Paraguay, which had the entire nation on the edge of its seat. The game went to extra-time and was ultimately decided by a strike in the 113th minute from Le Président himself, Laurent Blanc.

When asked if he would like to have been a part of it, an indifferent looking Anelka apparently replied: “It’s not that I don’t care about Les Bleus, but, at some point, you have to say stop. Otherwise you spend your life in front of the TV.” Anelka was just 19.

Four years later in 2002, an unconvincing spell on loan at Liverpool meant he was overlooked again despite performing well at the European Championship in Holland and Belgium. When Jacques Santini called Anelka up to replace the injured Sidney Govou in November, he point-blank refused, saying that he didn’t want to be ‘a stop-gap’. Anelka later demanded that Santini “get on his knees and apologise.”

His international career already appeared to be over and under Raymond Domenech it didn’t look like being resurrected as Anelka was ignored again in 2006. “I will not watch the World Cup,” he grumbled. “I feel Domenech called me back just so I could show my potential. I even scored. I think that right from the start, he had no intention of taking me on board anyway. I deserved a place.”

However, since November last year when he scored the winning goal in the first leg of France’s controversial play-off against the Republic of Ireland, Anelka has become a pillar of Domenech’s side. In fact, if he plays tonight, Anelka will set a personal record of starting eight consecutive matches for Les Bleus.

Nevertheless, his troubled history with France means the 31-year-old’s commitment still frequently comes into question. Wednesday’s L’Équipe even inquired whether Anelka really considers this summer’s World Cup in South Africa to be the pinnacle of his career, it of course being his first.

If Anelka does consider it to be so, why then is he having so much trouble working for the team as a lone central striker in both a 4-3-3 and a 4-2-3-1 formation? In each of France’s last four matches, Anelka has persistently dropped back into midfield to find the ball instead of maintaining his position and acting as the reference point for the attack as both systems clearly demand.

It’s the sort of role David Trezeguet excelled in; often disappearing, not playing any part in the build up, just being there when the move needed finishing. But Anelka, out of a need to touch the ball and feel included, can’t or maybe won’t make it work. The net result: he hasn’t recorded any shots on target in his last four matches and Les Bleus are struggling for goals.

“A centre-forward must call for the ball to be played deep and get on the end of crosses like Miroslav Klose did on Philipp Lahm’s ball for Germany’s second goal against Australia,” explained Bixente Lizarazu, left back of the great side of 1998 and 2000.

“Anelka does what he wants. He does what he likes. He will play the same match in whatever position you put him. If you put him at right-back, he would still play as a false nine.”

Statistics from France’s opening game against Uruguay last Friday show that Anelka received the ball just once in the opposition penalty area, but collected it 13 times around the half-way line. Luis Fernandez, his former coach at Paris-Saint Germain, claims this is indicative of the fact Anelka has never liked playing on his own up front.

“He grows frustrated very quickly in this position and rapidly ‘unhooks’ himself from the attack to find the ball. In Paris, with Jean-Louis Gasset, they were always saying to him: ‘Call out to the wings for the ball, then move, and ask for it in the box’. He didn’t want to. He always wanted to touch the ball.” Anelka’s apparent reluctance to play any other way supposedly led one former France manager to believe he didn’t like football at the highest level because of its emphasis on executing tactics to the letter, restricting his freedom of expression.

However, as Roger Lemerre’s former assistant René Girard countered: “It’s difficult to say that a player who is a regular at Chelsea with an Italian coach doesn’t like constraints.” World Cup winner Christophe Dugarry also believes Anelka has no problem playing as a lone striker, as he used to do everything required of him in that role when Zinedine Zidane asked him to do so; the implication being that there currently isn’t an authority figure within the French camp.

Of course, all the blame for France’s problems up front shouldn’t be left squarely on Anelka’s shoulders, even if his record at international level stands at only one goal every 300 minutes. Domenech has lined up seven different attacks in his last 12 matches, preventing his strikers from developing an understanding of each other’s movements and responsibilities.

It’s likely to be different again tonight against Mexico even though Domenech will persist with the 4-2-3-1 he used against Uruguay. Thierry Henry looks set to return to the starting XI as France’s central striker, but Anelka won’t be dropped. Instead, he’ll move to the right-hand side where he featured regularly during qualifying, taking the place of Sidney Govou

Anelka’s Chelsea team-mate Florent Malouda is certain to be back after his spat with Domenech last week. He will play on the left-hand side, meaning Franck Ribéry moves into the hole behind Henry at the expense of Yoann Gourcuff, undoubtedly the biggest casualty of France’s recent travails.

Expected France line-up (4-2-3-1): Lloris; Sagna, Gallas, Abidal, Evra; Toulalan, Diaby; Anelka, Ribéry, Malouda; Henry.

More World Cup stuff: Features * Lists * Interviews

FFT.com: Features * News * Interviews * HomeInteract: Twitter * Facebook * Forum