Drogba's test of character
ESPN analyst Kevin Keegan is one of English football's most respected figures and he will be writing for ESPNsoccernet throughout the season. As a player, Kevin represented Liverpool with distinction, winning numerous titles in domestic and European football, and was twice named European Footballer of the Year during his time at Hamburg. Kevin has managed England, Newcastle United, Manchester City and Fulham and is one of the most respected voices in the English game.
The Fernando Torres experiment has been inconclusive so far at Chelsea, and it must be stressed it is still in its infancy, but it will certainly be illuminating to see how Didier Drogba reacts to being dropped against Fulham when he steps straight back into the side to face Everton in the FA Cup on Saturday.
Given that Torres is cup-tied for the game at Stamford Bridge, we will discover something about the character of Drogba, a player who has become accustomed to being one of the first names on the team-sheet since Jose Mourinho brought him to the club from Marseille in 2005. Drogba is not a man used to sitting on the bench, but he did just that in the 0-0 draw with Fulham in midweek and we will see in his subsequent displays how he has reacted to this unwelcome change of status.
The arrival of a big-name signing in your position is a test of character for any player, and it can produce mixed reactions. It would make most players think, 'right, I want to see what this guy is about and I am going to do my best to play with him. I am going to see how I can help him, and how he can help me'. That is the kind of thought process you go through. While fans may believe their heroes don't like to see expensive rivals being brought to the club, great players are more concerned if their club aren't showing ambition and aren't trying to strengthen the side. They want competition.
When I was manager at Newcastle, I made sure I challenged each player in the squad by bringing in fresh blood. I was blessed with very good centre forwards but I signed more. I had Les Ferdinand and then I signed Alan Shearer for a world record fee of £15 million in 1996. I hoped the two of them could dovetail together effectively and it transpired that they could, but there is no way of knowing for sure.
If you can extract the maximum from a multi-talented group of strikers, it can take you onto another level, and Carlo Ancelotti will be hoping he can master that particular bit of alchemy and get the goals flowing from his forward line. The risk is that utilising three centre forwards at the same time creates confusion. When normally they would be getting on the end of a cross, now they are being asked to deliver it, and Chelsea have certainly struggled to accommodate Torres, Drogba and Nicolas Anelka in the same team so far.
Against Liverpool, Ancelotti used Torres and Drogba as a front two, with Anelka dropping in behind, while against Fulham they reverted to their 4-3-3 as Drogba sat on the bench and Florent Malouda and Anelka flanked Torres. For whatever reason, using Torres in the team hasn't quite worked yet. If you asked ten people why, they would probably give you ten different reasons and they would all be valid. Is it the egos? Is it the players being asked to compromise aspects of their game that they are normally excellent at? In any case, the end result is three players not playing their normal game.
It is still a work in progress and needs to be refined on the training ground. Practice may indeed make perfect.” -- Kevin Keegan on Chelsea's three-man attack
In truth, we can only make a firm judgement when the three-man attack - if Ancelotti persists with it - has been given a real chance. So far it hasn't. It is still a work in progress and needs to be refined on the training ground. Practice may indeed make perfect.
As to whether the acquisition of Torres should be portrayed as a direct step towards phasing out Drogba, I am not so sure. After all, Drogba is 32 and Anelka is 31, so there is very little difference in their respective ages. However, it was interesting that it was Drogba who made way against Fulham and Torres is certainly more similar in style to the Ivorian than he is to Anelka, who is a different kind of player. For all the criticism he has had, Nicolas has been a very, very good player for Chelsea, and in numerous positions. He is the one who is more flexible - he can play out wide, he can play in behind - but having managed him at Manchester City, there is no doubt in my opinion that his best position is up front. It remains to be seen whether he will be given that opportunity with any regularity.
The timing of Torres' transfer itself was slightly strange, and you do wonder why they have signed him in the January window, but I think it tells you Chelsea have made the Champions League a priority, especially as they have no chance of winning the league now that the points gap is so vast. Torres is of course eligible for Europe and perhaps he can help Roman Abramovich fulfil that long-held desire for continental success.
Breaking the British transfer record to sign a new striker can have a transformative impact on a club. While in the short term Chelsea may suffer for it, in the long term I think Torres will prove to be a great acquisition, if Ancelotti can establish how best to use him.