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Didier Drogba: The Striker Chelsea Can’t Replace

Didier Drogba - Chelsea legend
Credit: Mike Hewitt/Getty Images

In July 2004, Chelsea paid Marseille £24 million for the services of Didier Drogba. It took the Ivorian three games to register his first strike for the club, but from that date until his initial departure following the Champions League triumph in Munich against Bayern on 19 May 2012, when he slotted the winning penalty that took the big-eared trophy to west London, he became simply irreplaceable. In eight years with the club he scored 157 goals in 341 games. Unsurprisingly, in a poll taken by ‘Chelsea Magazine’ six months after that memorable night in Bavaria, Drogba was voted the club’s greatest player of all time. When Drogba arrived, Argentine striker Hernan Crespo had the position as the club’s main striker, but that wouldn’t last for long,

Ever since the days of Peter Osgood and Kerry Dixon, Chelsea had been seeking the talismanic forward that would not only lead the line, but also score the goals to propel the club to glory and silverware. When the Abramovich billions landed with the club, new manager José Mourinho used a chunk of the owner’s largesse to acquire Drogba, and set in place the striker template that ever since has proven impossible to fill.

Even before the days of Drogba, Mourinho and Abramovich, Chelsea seemed to have an unwanted talent for buying expensive strikers that seemed to shed their previously outstanding ability as soon as they arrived at Stamford Bridge and stepped out to lead the line.

In 1999, for example, with Gianluca Vialli managing the team, the club laid out £10 million for Blackburn’s Chris Sutton, one half of what was one of the early Premier League’s most devastating strike forces when twinned with Alan Shearer. With the goal pedigree he brought with him and a coach of Vialli’s long and glorious career as a front man to mentor him, it seemed a racing certainty that Sutton would prosper in Chelsea blue. Alas, it was not the case. Just one league goal and a season later, the striker was written off and unloaded to Celtic with a £4 million loss in the accounts, but that was nothing compared to the efforts and subsequent losses sustained trying to fund another Didier Drogba.

Serbian striker Mateja Kežman arrived at Stamford Bridge in the same month as Drogba. He was part of the same deal that took Arjen Robben to the club. It is therefore difficult to disentangle precisely the cost of his transfer to Chelsea. Comparing the Serb’s record with that of Drogba though, would be as trying to pair up chalk and cheese. The season was in its fourth month when Kežman notched his first goal. It took an injury time penalty for the fourth goal in a home romp against Newcastle United, and one when Mourinho jumped from the bench to insist that he was to take the spot kick. Across his one season with the club, he would feature in 40 games across all competitions, but score only seven goals. Officially, reports suggest that the £5 million that Chelsea got from Atlético Madrid when the Serb was moved on, was the figure they paid to PSV for his transfer. Other reports have however case doubt on that, suggesting the information was more of a PR move to cover the club’s embarrassment than an accurate reflection of the balancing of the books.

In 2006, rumoured to be largely at the behest of the club’s owner Chelsea signed AC Milan’s legendary Ukranian striker, Andriy Shevchenko. Then approaching 30, and after seven years with the Rossoneri, few thought that with £30 million being laid out, and no real prospect of any ‘sell on’ fee being realised, it was an expensive folly, and so it proved. Whilst, unlike other strikers before and after, he notched in his first game for the club, it quickly became clear that the player was but a shadow of the fearsome predator that had ripped up Serie A for half-a-dozen years. Nine league goals in nearly half a century of games was a poor return for the owner indulging his own Fantasy Football game.

Rafa Benitez signed Fernando Torres from Atlético Madrid for Liverpool, for a figure between £20 million and £25 million, depending on the value placed on Luis Garcia who moved in the other direction. Whatever the cost, it was money well spent. In four seasons with the club, he would score 65 league goals in just over a century of games before, despite protestations of the then manager Roy Hodgson, Liverpool succumbed to the financial seductions of Chelsea’s offers and also apparently the player’s desire to move to London. They took some £50 million or so on the closing day of the January 2011 transfer window in exchange for the Spanish striker.

The Reds secured a substantial profit in terms of the transfer, and had apparently bled the striker dry of goals. As with players before him, and those who would follow, the Fernando Torres of his previous club, seemed a million miles from the player in Chelsea blue. Early indications were suggestive that things were not as many expected, and Chelsea certainly hoped, them to be. It took until 23 April, and 903 minutes of playing time for a player who had averaged a goal every one and a half games at the Anfield club to score his first Chelsea goal. Things would hardly improve and, despite the memorable moment in the Camp Nou on the run to that Champions League victory, when Torres ran almost the length of the field to plunge the Estoque into the wearied Barcelona bull, his time must be counted as an expensive failure. 20 league goals in 110 games is hardly prolific.

Brazilian-born striker Diego Costa has probably come closest to filling the huge gap left by Drogba. His rumbustious style and aggressive manner, not to mention his penchant for goals endeared him to the Chelsea faithful in ways that so many previous acquisitions had failed to do. His goals record stacked up nicely too. Fifty-two league goals in just 89 games is impressive by any standards, and it brought the title back to Chelsea. Just when it looked like the search might be coming to an end though, a dispute with the manager forced a parting of the ways.   

The latest man to fall under the shadow of the Ivorian is Alvaro Morata. The sort of striker that had been touted around Europe’s major clubs as a ‘must have’ buy arrived at Stamford Bridge in the summer of 2017, and early indications were positive. An early flurry of goals saw the Spaniard’s stock rise, and the £60 million paid looked as though it may have been good value. The early promise faded though. The season finished with just fifteen goals in 48 games across all competitions which, taking into account that early rush, suggests a significantly diminishing return as the season wore on. The increasingly lacklustre performances, meant Chelsea laying out money on Olivier Giroud in January 2018 as a fill in, and the fact that for a number of games under new manager Maurizio Sarri this season the Frenchman has started ahead of the out of form and bereft of confidence Morata, is ample evidence that Morata, as with others before him, isn’t the answer to Chelsea’s search for another Drogba.

It’s a strange conundrum to consider that for all the money spent on strikers over the years, when Drogba was at the club, and in the time since he left, none have measured up to him in any long-term way. Diego Costa promised much, but his chance to prove himself was hamstrung by internal strife. Why is it that Chelsea seem incapable of locating a striker worth the money laid out on him? Perhaps it’s time for the realisation to sink in that if they’re looking for a man to replace the Ivorian, it’s a search doomed to failure. Simply put, there’s only one Didier Drogba.

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