Saturday, 24 April 2010

The Curious Case of Didier Drogba

Didier Drogba: destructive, direct, and at times "almost unplayable" as our pundits like to opine.

Drogba is Chelsea's top scorer this season by a wide margin, is a candidate for PFA Player of the Year, and with 25 Premier League goals he is still fighting it out with Wayne Rooney to be crowned Golden Boot winner for 2009/10.  All in all a guaranteed starter in every match?  I am not so sure.  Whilst his statistics this season, and performances in certain matches, make this statement seem to fly in the face of evidence I believe that there are questions to be asked about his continued presence in the Chelsea starting XI.

Drogba's enforced absence due to the 2010 Africa Cup of Nations was thought by many to be the moment that the wheels would fall of Chelsea's title challenge.  However during his absence Chelsea had the following results: Chelsea 5 - Watford 0, Chelsea 7 - Sunderland 2, Preston 0 - Chelsea 2, Chelsea 3 - Birmingham 0, Burnley 1 - Chelsea 2.  As soon as Drogba returned Chelsea could only draw 1-1 away to Hull.  In the period without Drogba Chelsea managed to win all five matches and scored 19 goals.

Admittedly those matches were not against what you would call stellar opposition so perhaps that explains that run of results?  I am not so sure that the teams that were played necessarily explain those results.  If we move to more recent times and look at two of Chelsea's best performances: Chelsea 7 - Villa 1 and Man Utd 1 - Chelsea 2, both of these results have something in common: the absence of Drogba from the starting line-up.  Coincidentally two of Chelsea's worst recent performances (home against Bolton and away at Tottenham) have also coincided with the inclusion of the Ivorian from the start .

When Chelsea went to White Hart Lane, Drogba was included from the start and Anelka was relegated to the bench.  As a result Chelsea proceeded to have one of their worst games of the season with Drogba completly ineffective against the solid Spurs backline of Kaboul, Bassong, Dawson and Assou-Ekkoto.  In order to analyse the problems it is instructive to look at the Guardian chalkboards comparing Drogba's first half performance against Tottenham with Anelka's first half performance against Man Utd (thanks to Zonal Marking for this chalkboard).     

 by Guardian Chalkboards

As can be seen the movement of Anelka around the opposition half was very hard for Man Utd's defenders to track.  Anelka managed to make 15 successful passes in a number of different positions.  This movement helped Chelsea to play a very fluid system with Joe Cole having his best game since returning from injury and Malouda continuing his excellent form.  By contrast the Drogba board highlights how ineffective Drogba was against Spurs.  None of his passes were successful in the final third.  Indeed it looks almost like an invisible wall is preventing Drogba from attacking the goal.  I think that this is chart is symptomatic of Drogba's lack of mobility and fluidity of movement in comparison to Anelka and meant that Tottenham's two strong, tall centre-backs could deal with the aerial presence and feel comfortable that Chelsea's attack would be relatively static.       

When Drogba has been good this season (especially against Arsenal) he has been a fantastic player to have in the team.  However when he has been bad the whole Chelsea team has suffered as a result.  When he is on the pitch there is always a temptation for players to smash the ball forward and hope Drogba can use some of his destructive pace and power to score a goal. Time after time this means that the team ends up resorting to crude, long-ball football when things do not seem to be going well.  It is also hugely apparent that Anelka just does not work in the wide position that Ancelotti likes to use him in.

What has impressed me so much about Chelsea (without Drogba) has been the movement towards a fluid possesion style of football that seemed to be starting to separate Ancelotti's team from that created by Mourinho.  During that ACN it appeared that Ancelotti had started to develop the team in his own image but with Drogba back in the side they have appeared to regress to their old habits.

I find it hard to say this about Drogba because he has been a great servant to Chelsea over the last six years.  He is clearly an interesting man with a complex personality who can be both infuriating and exhilarating in the space of a few minutes but I think that if Chelsea are to really fulfill those glimpses of potential they have shown under Ancelotti this season Drogba, at 32 years old, will have to accept a place in the side as a game-changing substitute a la Inzaghi at Milan or he will have to be moved on to pastures new. 


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