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Tim Vickery Column: Could Nicolas Anelka be a success at Atletico Mineiro?

His time at West Brom was far from a success
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Where on earth is Nicolas Anelka? A week ago Atletico Mineiro president Alexandre Kalil announced on twitter than the veteran French striker was joining the club. But he has not turned up.

At the time of writing (Monday night) it would appear that he is in Kuwait, attending a religious event. Time is tight. The Brazilian championship kicks off this weekend. The following Wednesday Atletico are putting their Copa Libertadores title on the line, travelling to Medellin to face the dangerous Atletico Nacional of Colombia in the second round of this year’s tournament.

After Kalil’s assertion, Atletico might look a bit foolish if the move fails to go through. But might they also end up looking silly if he does end up coming to Belo Horizonte?

For a start there is the question of his ban, imposed by the English FA after the controversial quenelle gesture made in celebrating a goal scored for West Bromwich Albion. Does the ban still apply in a different country? And might Atletico regret associating themselves with a player who has behaved in this way? And putting aside for a minute these considerations, how might he be accommodated in the team?

This would clearly be a challenge for coach Paulo Autori. Atletico have had their success with a 4-2-3-1 formation, and it is not easy to see how to fit Anelka into this model of play. 

Jo has done extremely well at centre forward – he was the top scorer of last year’s Libertadores and he won himself a (successful) recall to the national team. His place is surely guaranteed. 

And at the veteran stage, even a player as physically gifted as Anelka might struggle to fit into the line of three behind the lone striker. For a start, Ronaldinho is already there, and he can hardly be expected to run around carrying out marking duties. If the team is to retain its balance then the other members of the line of three have to be prepared to drop deep and mark, and this would not appear to be the way to get the best out of Anelka.

Perhaps, then, the solution would lie in a switch to a 4-4-2, with space for both Jo and Anelka up front, and Ronaldinho behind them, perhaps at the head of a midfield diamond. Or maybe an old style Brazilian 4-2-2-2, with both Ronaldinho and Diego Tardelli featuring as attacking midfielders – though this could put a huge strain on the more defensive pair of midfielders.

Whatever the chosen system, it would need work on the training ground – and so every day that Anelka does not turn up is a day less for Autori to find a blend.

The instant reaction is that the incorporation of Anelka would be unlikely to work. But, in refutation, Atletico can point to recent history. We all said that it could not possibly work when they signed Ronaldinho, who had just been shown the door by Flamengo. He was a has-been – and it was a complete recipe for disaster when Ronaldinho was teamed up with Jo, a once promising player who had degenerated into a party animal.

The outcome? The two of them played vital roles as Atletico won the Libertadores, the most important title in the club’s history. The lesson? Never be too hasty to write off talent.

And Anelka, whatever one might think of him, is certainly a talent. There are plenty of giant clubs on his curriculum. It is easy to forget that he was at Chelsea as recently as two years ago. What he is not, however, is Clarence Seedorf. 

Anelka could bring all of his skills and all of his big time experience to Belo Horizonte, and it would not transform him into a man as collectively minded as the current coach of Milan. In his time with Botafogo, Seedorf poked his nose into everything in his quest to improve the team; from training methods, to logistics to even a desire to change the words of the club anthem, Seedorf involved himself in all aspects of Botafogo. It is hard to imagine Anelka behaving in the same way, or having the same effect on his team-mates.

A week after declaring that Anelka was theirs, Atletico are currently refusing to answer questions about him. The big question mark, then, is whether or not he is still coming. The bigger – and probably more fascinating – one is whether the tropics might work their magic and bring a smile to the face of ‘le sulk.’


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