Didier Drogba is just one of those guys you can’t help but like. It’s the energy, the power, the flowing locks. The way he bullied hapless defenders. The Ivorian is one of the cult heroes of English football, no doubt. “DROGBA LEGEND,” reads the famous banner at Stamford Bridge. Legend indeed. In an illustrious career at Chelsea that spanned 8 years from 2004-2012 (with one farewell season in 2014/15 ), Drogba netted some of the most crucial goals in the club’s history. One thinks of his late equalising header against Bayern Munich in the 2012 Champions League final and his winning penalty in the ensuing shootout. The FA Cup clincher in the infamously tedious 2007 final, an occasion where history would repeat itself ,three years later- this time against Portsmouth from a free-kick.
League form, however, is the greatest misconception of Dider Drogba. The Ivorian only managed 0.41 goals per game- miles below what you would expect of the typical calibre many associate him with. To put that it into perspective, Thierry Henry scored 0.68 goals per match, Alan Shearer 0.59, while Sergio Agüero currently averages 0.69. In fact, Drogba was rarely first-choice striker at Chelsea, which is staggering considering his ‘legend’ status among social media. Upon his hefty £24m price tag, many expected him to hit the ground running in West London. His first season was of profound disappointment, starting less than half of the matches and managing only 10 goals. Eidur Gudjohnsen- an attacking midfielder by trade- was the preferred option leading the lines in Mourinho’s 4-3-3 system for his link-up play and selfless runs off the ball. Drogba, on the other hand, was a more traditional number nine. He thrived on crosses in to the box and long, direct balls, where he could exercise his physicality and heading ability. However, with the likes of Thierry Henry and Wayne Rooney adding a new dimension to forward play- that is, dropping deeper to link attacks and chipping in with assists- the traditional number nine was gradually falling out of favour.
Bar a prolific 2006/07 season where he netted 20 goals, Drogba’s league-form and goal stats remained chronically underwhelming until Ancelotti’s arrival in 2009. In 05/06 he scored 12 times in 29 appearances, 07/08 saw 8 goals in 19 appearances, which then dropped even further to a mere 5 goals in 24 appearances for 08/09. In 09/10, though, Drogba fired out of the blocks- scoring 13 goals in his first 15 matches. Still though, Chelsea looked a more fluid, well-rounded unit in his absence. Nicolas Anelka, like Gudjohnsen under Mourinho, was the superior ‘team-player’ for Ancelotti despite Drogba’s magnificent individual contributions. The speedy Frenchman could link play and also run in behind, making Chelsea’s attacks more unpredictable. Drogba ended the season with another Premier League title in his hands and a first golden boot award but, once again, he had become the plan B.
Drogba was the definition of a big-game player. When the stakes were high, when the adrenaline was coursing through his veins, he came to life. It is equally notable that the style and tempo of cup matches suited the Ivorian. They have a tendency to be cagey, attritional affairs, where traditionally technical teams will be more direct- just look at Liverpool in the Champions Leage final. The game becomes a real battle, a scrap, long balls and hopeful crosses into the box suddenly of the essence. Drogba feasts on that.
To earn a spot on the pantheon of the greatest players to have played for Chelsea, to become compared in Instagram polls to the likes of Shearer, Henry and Suarez, to spark misty-eyed nostalgia years after retirement you need to put in big performances in big games. Drogba perfected this art to a tee. But one of the great ‘Premier League’ strikers of all time? Not even top 20.