A lot of people can’t stand Didier Drogba. His marauding arrogance, his cowardly diving and his pathetic tantrums are not what fans look for in their sporting heroes. In fact, if anything, there was a time when he was vilified as the very embodiment of all that’s wrong with modern football.
Overpaid, over-pampered, over-inflated and, seemingly, allowed to go unchecked. 50 years ago he’d have been sorted out by a clip round the ear, 40 years ago it would’ve been a dusting down from Billy Bremner and 20 years ago, Vinnie Jones would’ve squeezed his balls.
And meanwhile, TV replays and referees would’ve stayed out of it; punters, pundits and protagonists would’ve batted no eyelids. But those days are long gone.
Indeed, the notion of football as a man’s game played by men principally died the moment Roy Keane (rather visciously) snapped Alf-Inge Haaland’s knee into a million tiny pieces, and subsequently boasted about it in his best-selling autobiography.
But an end to professional footballers’ self-regulation – to the honourable man’s unwritten code of conduct – wasn’t necessarily a bad thing. The culmination of the last millennium also witnessed other, significantly better things.
Namely, a growth in the strength and depth of our topflight, distinguished by a vibrant brand of fast-paced attacking football played by a cash rich generation of superstars from all corners of the globe. As such, its appeal has spread like wild-fire across the planet.
Behind the success of our mass-exported football product is not only a new wave of multi-national, multi-millionaire players, but a fresh, innovative brand of tactical ideologies. While “four-four-f**king-two” may have worked in the fictional world of Mike Bassett, it seldom cuts the mustard for the 21st century’s real-life coaching glitterati.
And this is where Monsieur Drogba comes in. With his imposing presence and dynamic power, Chelsea’s temperamental former talisman - reviled and revered in equal measures - emerged as the prototype centre forward of the Noughties.
In a contemporary system that plays in five phases up the field rather than the traditional lines of defence, midfield and attack, a multi-faceted frontman is integral. No longer do master tacticians build their teams around a playmaker. Nowadays, the key man is the lone ranger up top.
Whether your team sets up in the conservative 4-5-1, the expansively wide 3-6-1, the Christmas tree 4-3-2-1 or world football’s latest tactical zeitgeist: 4-2-3-1, all share a common denominator – all rely on a multi-tasking lone striker. In other words, all rely on a Drogba.
It’s not so much that Drogba defines modern tactics, it’s that his very complete set of attributes best serve the popular system of modern times. He’s not just in vogue, he is vogue; the very blueprint for the rest to aspire to. Strong as an ox, but with pace to burn, a silky touch and that killer instinct in front of goal. He holds it up, lays it off, presses, defends, turns, heads, shoots, works the channels and leads the line. He also boasts his own unique dead-ball technique, using a piercing side-footed motion to generate a lethal top-spin trajectory. If it rolled off the tongue slightly smoother, there might be a film called ‘Top-spin it like Drogba.’ Thankfully, it doesn’t.
The epitome of the neo-striker, Didier Drogba represents the latest milestone in the evolution of football’s most prestigious position. With the role of the striker morphing from the poaching primadonna of yesteryear to a multi-skilled workhorse, there’s an argument that legendary goalscorers of previous generations such as the bustling Nat Lofthouse, the slithery Jimmy Greaves or the clever Ian Rush, would be deemed inferior to this latest all-encompassing prototype. All of these legends reigned supreme in a less supreme environment. None had as many complete attributes as Drogba.
Drogba is a modern day example of what Arrigo Saachi called a universal player: those able to play not just one specific role related to the number on his back, but expected to be more fluid and adaptable – to cover several roles with the system.
The combination of all of the above means that the big Ivorian, even at the ripe old age of 36, is a sought after commodity. He may not be as dynamic as he was five years ago, but you only have to check his recent form at Galatasaray and his penchant for the big occasion to realise that he still has plenty to offer.
Jose Mourinho has admitted there is a coaching role for Drogba at Chelsea in the long term, but rumours are rife that he might yet signa one-year deal to lace up at the Bridge once more. If new signing Diego Costa needs anyone to show him how to boss Premier League defences, then look no further than this legendary Ivorian.
A lot of people can’t stand Didier Drogba. But even so, this most fashionable talent is still going strong, and the prodigal son is ready to return.
Because behind the sulking, the stropping and the dummy-spitting, is a unique footballer, who continues to pave the way for a new class of centre forward.
Read more from Ben Cove.