“When he was good he was very very good, but when he was bad he was horrid.”
I’d speculate that the author of this nursery-rhyme couplet had spent a week watching Didier Drogba in a Chelsea shirt. There I was, about to climb down from the fence after his performance last Wednesday to suggest that my two-year-old niece stays on her feet more than young Didier (and possibly has a better first touch too) when yesterday afternoon the big man proceeded to thunder around Anfield like a man possessed, taking great pleasure in screwing up newspapers detailing Rafael Benitez’s spectacularly inaccurate proclamations of superiority and feeding them to him with a large side order of humble pie. Now all I’m prepared to suggest is that the big man is as enigmatic and unpredictable as we football fans are fickle.
Some superb strikers have graced the pitch at the Bridge through the years — Greaves, Tambling, Osgood and Dixon to name just a few and we’ve also had our fair share of great white hopes who haven’t exactly become names that will be lauded during our centenary year — Fleck, Casiraghi, Sutton and Kezman all come to mind. Both categories could be the subject of a lively pub discussion which would see you past last orders and into the curry house before someone slurs the words “but Mark Nicholls scored against Shpurssss…” Try and get some form of agreement as to which camp Drogba falls into and the naan breads will really start flying. He is a player who completely divides opinion amongst the Blue faithful, plain and simple.
The continental influence on the Premiership era has bought some truly great forwards to SW6 — many falling into the ‘deep lying’ category rather than that of traditional centre forward but excellent goal scorers and creators in their own right. The finest example being arguably the greatest player ever to pull on a Chelsea shirt; Gianfranco Zola. For all the riches and talent we have at our disposal now, when watching a game like the one against Liverpool last Wednesday I often think that even now Franco would be able to break the stalemate with a moment of brilliance that would make the game and subsequent headlines his own. Call him what you want — legend, genius, magician — it won’t be enough to do him justice.
But for all Franco’s selflessness, sublime skill and vision there is no substitute for a spot of greed and sheer brute force in a striker — Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink held these qualities in abundance and used them to great effect during his time wearing the number nine shirt. For an average footballer he made a terrific goal scorer — while his first touch and work rate might not have been the best (putting it politely), he did exactly what we paid £15 million for and was simply lethal in front of goal. The left foot / right foot / headed hat-trick against Spurs being a personal favourite and also a near-perfect demonstration of the art of the striker in the modern game.
Suffice to say that any striker coming to the Bridge follows in the footsteps of both Gods and monsters. The epic “Will he, won’t he?” transfer saga that preceded Drogba’s arrival last summer, along with the particularly Chelsea-esque price tag immediately doubled the weight of expectation on his shoulders. Something that a professional footballer should be able to deal with in the eyes of the fans of course, but not a millstone many of us would relish carrying ourselves. Despite a season hampered by injury and the difficulties of adjusting to a new league he managed a tally of 16 goals in all competitions — a fair return given his prolonged absence from the side (Wayne Rooney managed 17, by way of reference), and lest we forget played an integral role in our most successful season ever. But even his staunchest supporters agreed that an improvement was required this season.
So to put it bluntly, is he the player we need up front? The formation Jose prefers partially sacrifices the strikers’ traditional role for a more balanced and solid team that is as effective in stifling the game plan of the opposition and denying them opportunities as it is at creating them for itself. The players need to be able to switch between playing as a coherent defensive unit without the ball (illustrated against Arsenal in the Community Shield who had extended periods of possession in midfield with very little end result) and a patient yet powerful attacking force with it.
To effectively lead the line in such a formation requires a powerful physical presence, an astute footballing brain and no small degree of skill; it may be a crude example but a hybrid consisting of half Zola and half Hasselbaink might be the ideal mixture (if not the most aesthetically pleasing to look at). Drogba has the size and power to cause defenders serious problems — the brutal treatment dished out to a shell-shocked Phillipe Senderos in the Community Shield being exhibit A here — but whilst he has shown glimpses of some terrific skill and an intelligent approach to the game, they have arguably been overshadowed by an often clumsy first touch, profligacy in front of goal and the accusation that he goes to ground too easily is never far from the lips of fans and pundits alike.
In his defence, the more tactical and defensive aspects of the role don’t appear to have been a major part of Drogba’s game prior to his arrival at Stamford Bridge. He has to be part battering ram, part footballing speed bump and part striker; there to hassle and intimidate the opposition’s defence and help disrupt their overall game plan while holding the ball up and providing for his team mates, taking scoring chances when they come as opposed to just being an out-and-out goal scorer who exists almost exclusively to convert the chances created for him. These are all qualities that a good striker should have, but now teams are wiser to our style of play they are “doubling up” on the wingers and with a three man midfield frequently going man for man against ours, this leaves the lone front man with a fairly thankless task as both support and supply can be pretty thin on the ground. This often makes the role far more combative and disruptive (aspects of the game which Drogba performs well) with creative and scoring opportunities almost a bonus when they come along, requiring both patience and confidence (qualities he lacks on occasion, especially when things are not going his way) as well as vision and skill. I don’t believe that he is a truly world class striker and at twenty-seven years of age it is questionable whether he will become one, but Chris Sutton he is not and if anyone can get the best out of him then Jose can. There are aspects of his game that need work — linking the play successfully is something he sometimes struggles with (Crespo’s movement and appreciation of how his team mates play make him superior here) and he could benefit from watching a few videos of Mark Hughes in his prime for guidance on how to play with his back to goal and hold the ball up. His tendency to get involved in petty arguments with both the opposition and officials sees him walk a fine line at times, but he often seems to thrive the more heated the battle gets — he looked to be in his element in the fractious atmosphere that filled Anfield yesterday.
With the funds available the option to buy another striker with a Roman-worrying fee attached is always there, but it is open to question whether we are now reaching the stage where such a huge price tag would be nigh on impossible for the player to justify — would the purported £50 million plus price tag for a player like Adriano, although superior to Drogba, mean that anything less than thirty plus goals in a treble-winning season should be deemed a failure? A simplification of the argument I know, but yesterday Jose’s patience and faith in Drogba paid off and the boost in confidence will hopefully see him go on to bigger and better things.
Despite the current animosity between the red side of Liverpool and the Blue corner of West London, Benitez’s team are no fools; they have the best defence in the Premiership after our own and to lead the line the way Drogba did against them yesterday deserves a great deal of credit. I might even go as far as saying that it was his best all-round performance in a Chelsea shirt thus far if I wasn’t back on my fence wondering how on earth a player can play two such dramatically different games in the space of four days. We all know that come Bolton on October 15th, we could be hailing another man of the match performance from our number fifteen as easily as we could be cursing his very existence and questioning his parentage come 5.00pm. If the argument is that our domination of the league is dull, I’d urge those making the accusations to spend some time watching the brilliantly frustrating and frustratingly brilliant Didier Drogba. There is truly never a dull moment.