‘I know how to get the best out of the players’

Nicolas Anelka… ready to pick up the gauntlet.-GETTY IMAGES

Nicolas Anelka says that the dual responsibility as a player-cum-manager of Mumbai City FC in the 2015 ISL is daunting, but admits that he is enchanted by the challenge of working with a group of diverse personalities. By Nandakumar Marar.

Unhurried, yet lethal — that is Nicolas Anelka for you. The Frenchman is known for changing the course of a match with an instinctive pass or a cheeky strike. In the Indian Super League Season-1, playing for Mumbai City FC, he showed glimpses of his skills by cleverly seeking out team-mates upfront to relay the ball, or picking his spot to score. Anelka is back with the Mumbai outfit for Season-2 as player-cum-manager.

According to the 36-year-old former French playmaker, the dual responsibility is daunting, but he has no ambition of being a full-time manager, though he is enchanted by the challenge of working with a group of diverse personalities. Anelka had asked for a bigger role in Mumbai City FC, and the management promptly obliged. For a world-class talent who is also known to be a maverick at times, carrying the players of Mumbai City FC together on the ISL journey is part of the task.

Talking of team managers, under whom he has played during his professional club career, Anelka said Carlo Ancelotti (who managed the French star in Chelsea between 2009-2012) was exceptional for his ability to put players at ease and knowing how to use each one’s talent and potential.

“For me a good manager is one who puts the player in the right position. So, if I have a striker who plays in the middle in front, I will not play him wide,” said Anelka, who combined so well with Ivory Coast’s Didier Drogba to make a fearsome striking pair for Chelsea.

Drogba’s power and pace combined with Anelka’s silken ball-skills resulted in thrilling goals and exciting times for Chelsea in the English Premier League. Later, the two linked up again for Shanghai Shenhua in the Chinese League for a short stint.

Elaborating on the method he will adopt in the team-building work at Mumbai City FC, Anelka said, “I like the way Ancelotti talks to the players. His understanding with players was very good. If the manager makes you feel good, you will perform well on the pitch. That’s why I will speak a lot with my players (at Mumbai City FC). It is very important to talk, know them better so that I can put them in positions which will help my players and my team.”

He added: “Tactically, (Antonio) Conte (Juventus manager) is someone who ranks high in my list. We had almost 45 minutes of tactics every day. The Italian style is a lot more tactical when compared with the English or the Spanish. Football involves a lot of talking.”

The tactical acumen of the Italians grabbed world attention during the 2006 World Cup final. France lost the match in which its captain Zinedine Zidane was shown the red card for head-butting the Italian defender, Marco Materazzi. When asked for his take on the incident, Anelka quipped: “It is about character. Zidane is a great footballer, but a little crazy when provoked. He has collected red cards before.”

Anelka was not a member of the French squad in 2006, but wore the national colours in the 2010 World Cup. When asked if he had ever faced similar provocations from defenders like Materazzi, aimed at distracting him, Anelka replied: “I don’t think he (Materazzi) will get me.”

Materazzi (player-cum-manager of Chennaiyin FC) and Anelka will meet again during the 2015 ISL. “We met last season. Defenders don’t try to provoke because they know my focus is on the game,” Anelka said.

For many, many years, rival defenders have targeted top players with divine skills, seeking to neutralise them on the pitch. Today, Messi is the target of the defenders. “It (provocation) must be happening, but Messi is too fast for others,” said Anelka.

The Mumbai City FC players listen attentively to every word of Anelka, who is an inspiration both on and off the pitch.

The Frenchman, infamous for his outburst against the national team coach Raymond Domenech at half-time during the France versus Mexico game during the 2010 World Cup, has perhaps mellowed with age. The Mumbai City FC player/manager said: “I’m quiet but I’ve worked with a lot of managers and know how to speak to players. I know how to get the best out of the players.”

When asked what he would do if he were to go without scoring a goal for a series of games in the ISL, Anelka’s replied: “I will be putting myself straight on the bench — as simple as that. We have a better squad this season, so we’ll be able rotate players.”

It will be interesting to see how Anelka deals with the pressures of his dual role and how he will think on his feet, for himself and his team.