That is, one with Didier Drogba and one without Didier Drogba. I, like many others have stated before, have always had this sort-of idea that Chelsea were a completely different team when Drogba wasn’t playing. During tonight’s match versus Porto, this idea culminated into a thesis that was entirely tangible and defensible.
This view really came about last year during Scolari’s reign as Chelsea manager. Scolari was forced to start the season with Nicolas Anelka in the lone striker due to the injury of Didier Drogba. As everyone knows, the story started like a fairytale and divulged into a true nightmare for Chelsea fans and Luis Felipe Scolari. The change in style was obvious from the first match – Chelsea were now a “horizontal” team, signaling the end of the Jose Mourinho-type directness that had proved so successful. Until this day, I attributed most of this to the new manager’s new ideas and don’t get me wrong, that definitely was part of it. Now, I attribute a large portion of this to the use of Nicolas Anelka as the sole focal point of the attack. Although he was the Premier League’s top scorer, I’m also inclined to put some of the blame on him for the system going sour. That’s not saying Anelka was doing something wrong, because he wasn’t.
The Chelsea team, still primarily a product of Jose Mourinho’s purchases, cannot be built around the silkiness of a striker like Anelka. With his purchases, Jose Mourinho designed Chelsea to attack in a very direct manner – a style Mr. Abramovich found unattractive (funny how that works, huh?). When Chelsea are forced to attack in a more indirect way, as I believe they are when Anelka is leading the line, they suffer an identity crisis.
As one could imagine, it becomes difficult to really see the effect of Didier Drogba because he spends so much time sulking, being injured, not trying, diving, etc. Today’s match was like a Didier Drogba light-switch. The player is in the best form he’s been in since 06/07 and he’s forced out due to suspension, to be replaced by his counter-part with a completely different skill set, Nicolas Anelka. And so the Drogba-less Chelsea experiment begins. Within five minutes, I saw Frank Lampard put a header on target from open play – I knew from that moment we were back to last-season’s Chelsea.
For those of you who don’t know, Frank Lampard never gets his head on the end of anything for Chelsea. I believe his first goal for Chelsea was a header and then he went on a 5-6 year drought to score 3 or 4 last season. Why such the sudden increase in headers last year? The absence of Didier Drogba. First, had Drogba been playing, Lampard would have been behind Drogba, who would have been heading that ball (and probably would have scored). The reason being that Nicolas Anelka, although 6 ‘1, cannot head the ball for his life. He has the neck muscles of a lizard. Second, Anelka opens up little space in the defense with his physical presence. As opposed to Drogba, who is second-to-none at being a nuisance around the box. Although not in this particular situation, the famous Lampard late run becomes the un-famous Lampard late header. When there’s not enough space for the ball to played on the floor, it goes to the air.
I found myself yelling at Anelka through my computer, telling him to stay in the center. Anelka has a tendency to unnecessarily roam around the field looking for the ball and leaving us without a centre-forward. God knows you don’t want to be depending on Kalou to score goals from the box.
As the game progressed, I was in full confidence that Chelsea would take the lead from an Essien shot that would deflect off the bar for Anelka to tap-in. To my admitted delight, I was slightly off and Anelka provided a handier finish than I first predicted. After the relief of coming out of the rain-trodden match with three points, I immediately became paranoid of the idea of a Didier Drogba injury. Sure, Chelsea could do pretty well without him, but could they win the Champions League or the Premier League without Didier Drogba? I’m not so sure.