The Chelsea striker graveyard?

by Liam Corbett

Between 1999 and 2006 Andrei Shevchenko was one of Europe’s deadliest strikers, having scored 127 Serie A goals in 208 games – a goal every 1.6 games. In all competitions, he scored 174 goals in 296 games for AC Milan in this time period. He then made the big money move to big spending Chelsea. He’s widely regarded as an expensive flop, but he’s not alone. Fernando Torres, Mateja Kezman, Adrian Mutu, Hernan Crespo and Claudio Pizarro all joined Chelsea as prolific strikers, and all left with their reputation damaged from their stay in West London. Were they all as bad as everybody thinks? And who’s been the biggest failure?

From the start of the Roman Abramovich era in the summer of 2006, there’s been a steady flow of big name strikers at the club. In that time though, there’s only been arguably two real successes – Didier Drogba, and to a lesser extent, Nicolas Anelka.

So to start of with, the goal scoring stats of the Chelsea strikers signed since summer 2003. To give the signings some context, first up is their goalscoring for their previous clubs:

It’s easy to see why they were all targeted by the wealthy West London club. All have strong goal scoring records in good leagues. You can argue that Kezman’s goals in the Dutch league would come about a little easier, but a goal every 1.36 games is still a great return. Mutu, Crespo and Shevchenko all thrived in a defensive Serie A, Pizarro in the league most similar to the Premier league - the Bundesliga, Drogba enjoyed an excellent season in France (whilst excelling in the UEFA Cup), and of course Anelka and Torres were well known from successful spells in the Premier League. In terms of reputation, Shevchenko would have just about edged ahead of Torres, with his exploits in the Champions League and Serie A. Drogba on the other hand was largely purchased based on just one excellent season with Marseille – where he thrived against English Opposition in the club’s run to the UEFA Cup final.

Based on their prior clubs, and the strong leagues that they excelled in, you’d expect each player to continue to thrive. But unfortunately, this wasn’t the case for all:

In terms of goals, Didier Drogba has been far and away the biggest success in terms of number, and the number of games per goal. With an impressive 152 goals, and one every 2.16 games, he’s deservedly considered a club legend at Stamford Bridge. He’s been integral to the success Chelsea have enjoyed since 2004. Three league titles, three FA Cups, and two League Cups in 8 seasons tells it’s own story. Second in the list in both goals scored and games per goal is Nicolas Anelka. Known as a troublesome journeyman, Anelka made more appearances for Chelsea than any other team, with 70 goals scored in his 204 appearances, resulting in a goal every 2.91 games.

But this article isn’t about Drogba and Anelka. It’s about the failures.

In terms of longevity, none of the other players were even close to 100 appearances for the club. Crespo and Shevchenko did at least break the 70 mark though, and it’s the two Serie A imports that appear 3rd and 4th on the games per goal list. Whilst we consider Anelka a success for Chelsea, Hernan Crespo’s scoring rate was near identical to his, at 2.92 games per goal. Whilst this doesn’t compare too well to a goal every 1.64 games for Parma, it’s still not the failure that some may have thought. And surprisingly, Shevchenko’s strike rate wasn’t anywhere near as bad as people make out. Torres’ goalscoring rate in his first year at Chelsea has been compared to Shevchenko’s. Both were very expensive strikers, both were prolific and both were considered amongst the best in the world. But that’s where the similarities end. Shevchenko scored 22 goals in his 77 Chelsea games at a rate of 1 goal every 3.5 games. Torres has 1 goal for every 10 games.The only player with a worse strike rate was Claudio Pizarro – who was signed as a back up striker. He managed a very poor 2 goals in 28 games.

Making up the list, Mutu is 5th with a goal every 3.8 games, and Kezman is 6th with 5.86. The biggest conclusion is that none of the players improved their strike rates from their prior teams.

Next up - the cost per goal:

Well if nothing else, Torres has been consistant. One goal per ten games, is matched on the cost per goal measure as well – one goal per £10million. Ouch. Shevchenko, the player compared to Torres, has a cost of £1.4m per goal. It’s still a very large number, but it’s nowhere near the £10m that Torres has hanging over his name. Adrian Mutu has the second highest cost per goal with £1.58m – although it has to be remembered that Chelsea sued the player for breach of Contract, so the actual cost wasn’t as high. When looking at Torres’ cost per goal in his time at Chelsea, it’s unsurprising that he’s getting a lot of attention, when you have players like Grant Holt of Norwich and Danny Graham of Swansea, both outscoring him comfortably.

At the other end of the scale, unsurprisingly again, it’s Drogba and Anelka offering the best value for money in terms of goals. Despite chunky transfer fees, Drogba’s 152 Chelsea goals have been at a cost of £160k for each one, whilst Anelka offered a slightly worse rate of £210k per goal. Looked at in isolation, it’s still an expensive number, but a mere pittance compared to the millions of pounds for the Torres, Mutu’s and Shevchenko’s goals. Kezman and Crespo were 4th and 5th, whilst Pizarro had no cost per goal (all two of them) as he was signed on a free.

So we’ve seen the bare numbers, but what’s the reason for all of the strikers strike rate falling?

Formation/Tactics

Since Mourinho took over at the start of the 2004/05 season, Chelsea have primarily played a 4-3-3 formation. All of the players were signed as Central Strikers. Straight away that means with that many strikers, and only one central role, the players will either have less playing time, or have to play in an unfamiliar supporting wide role (as performed successfully by Anelka). The central striking role is different in what is needed for the team. Most of the above players shone at their previous clubs in a 4-4-2 formation. Torres and Shevchenko in particular, were at their best with another forward alongside, whether it was Gerrard playing in a number 10 role, or Inzaghi poaching around the box.

Playing at the top of a 4-3-3 formation demands a different skill set. First and foremost, you need to be able to hold the ball up. As the central focal point, it’s the strikers job to bring other players into the game, and provide an outlet for the defence and midfield. It also helps to be an aerial threat. In a 4-4-2, with another central forward alongside them, players can offer something else. Torres in particular, was most effective for Liverpool when running onto through balls, and playing off the defenders shoulder. Similarly, Shevchenko was also good at this – although not as good as his former strike partner Inzaghi (“He was born offside” – Fergie). Both scored a large number of their goals through central attacking positions, whilst the 4-3-3 relies on the wide men for the creativity.

The Drogba Effect

When playing a settled 4-3-3 formation, as mentioned above, the central striker needs to be an outlet, an aerial threat, and good at holding the ball up. Drogba has been one of the best players in the world in this formation for the past 5 years. And if you have the best in the World, how do the other players get in to prove their worth?

Mutu and Crespo had the biggest opportunity, as both signed before the big Ivorian. However, for mainly off the field problems (one was a cokehead, one was an Argentinian who was homesick for Italy), neither could really cement their place as the main striker before Drogba’s signing. Aside from Mutu and Crespo, the rest have been fighting a losing battle. Unable to replace Drogba as the central striker, players have been pushed out wide, or simply not had enough games. The number of appearances in the lists above are slightly boosted by substitute appearances.

Nicolas Anelka has been the second most succesful striker of the Abramovich signings, but that was largely down to two reasons. Firstly, in the 2008/09 season, Drogba missed most of the season, and as a result Anelka had more games as the central striker. This resulted in 25 goals, and a Premier League golden boot that season. Secondly, he’s been one of the few players who’s been able to make the transition to the wide positions.

How settled?

When looking into the variances, I looked at the ages of the players at the time of signing. To cut a long story short, they were all in their 20s, meaning that none of them had passed their peak. Aside from that, I thought perhaps the price tag might provide a trend. Whilst Torres is the obvious one to look at, Drogba’s fee of £24m in 2004 was a very significant outlay at the time. At the other end of the scale, Claudio Pizarro cost nothing in transfer fees, but only scored 2 goals. Of course, different players are going to react differently mentally to such pressure, but there’s no direct correlation.

But there was one pattern that did emerge. The amount of time the players had spent at their previous clubs. Shevchenko made 296 appearances for Milan, Pizarro had played 251 times for Bayern Munich, Kezman 176 for PSV and finally, Torres played 142 times for the Anfield club. If you compare the number of games for their prior club compared to their goals per game ration, then you can start to see the link. At the other end of the scale, Drogba had played for Marseille for just one season, and Guingamp for two seasons before that. Crespo, who had the 3rd best games/goals ratio, had also spent just the one season at his prior club. There could be a few reasons for the trend – players could have reacted badly to leaving their comfort zones, they may have built up a good relationship with their team mates, and if they are settled in one place, it’s likely that they’re happy off the pitch as well.

Complete Failures?

So were they complete failures? Yes and No. Torres has a lot to do to be considered anything but a flop. Fifty games into a new club is enough to form a judgement, and five goals for £50m just isn’t good enough. Yes, he’s had to develop his all round game, and he’s also provided many assists, but for that price (and it’s not his fault), he needs to be delivering more goals. Shevchenko, whilst considered as a flop, does at least have a couple of domestic cup medals to his name. He’s perhaps considered a failure due to the large number of goals he scored in the Champions League, and Serie A. He also had the problem that he was signed by the owner rather than the manager. As a result, it was always going to be a struggle for him.

Crespo and Kezman at least have League Title winners medals as well, whilst Pizarro and Mutu ended their Chelsea careers empty handed.

After Chelsea

A bit of a mixed bag for the players after they left the club. Initially, Mutu struggled to even match his Chelsea strike rate with Juventus, but then went on to enjoy a very productive spell with Fiorentina, scoring 70 goals in 143 games. Hernan Crespo joined AC Milan in betwen his two seasons at Chelsea, and enjoyed a decent return of 18 in 40 games, including 2 goals in the big game environment of the Champions League Final in 2005.

Claudio Pizarro is now the all time top scoring foreign player in the Bundesliga, and returned to former club Werder Bremen. In his current spell with the team, he’s scored a very impressive 87 goals in 136 games. The real sufferer was Andriy Shevchenko. After returning back to his beloved AC Milan, short of confidence, 2 years older, and no longer first choice, he scored just 2 goals in 26 games, to slightly ruin the legacy he had left behind. He then went back to his first club Dynamo Kiev, where he’s managed 20 goals in 48 games. Mateja Kezman? Retired at 32.

Nicolas Anelka has yet to make his first appearance for his new club in the Chinese league.

In Conclusion

Well it’s clear as day then! There’s not a definitive answer as to why such prolific strikers have struggled at Chelsea, but a mixture of several. There appears to be a direct link to how settled a player was before signing, there’s the formation and tactics favoured by Chelsea that just don’t suit certain players games, and there’s the domination of Didier Drogba at the club – resulting in less chances and being played out of position. Mentality, also comes into it with the price tag, and there’s the length of time the so called flops have stayed for. Perhaps the previous views on Crespo and Shevchenko shouldn’t be as harsh as first thought, and certainly Mutu did show some glimpses of a decent future. Kezman and Pizarro were poor though.

With Fernando Torres the latest to struggle, he should perhaps be judged after 2-3 seasons. Those with short memories will forget that Drogba was far from the star performer in his first two seasons, with things clicking for him in season 3. Torres also has the knowledge that Drogba’s star is fading, and at 34, he can’t have too long left at the top. On top of this, there’s about to be a new manager at Chelsea who may well suit Torres’ style. Whilst not a popular choice with the Chelsea fans, Rafa Benitez’s name has been bandied about. What is for sure, is that he is a very good player, and surely time will see him prove that, if not, someone may well end up with a very good bargain.

6 Responses

  1. Anandu says:

    Fascinating piece

  2. Joel says:

    Would be interesting to see your “statistics” on how the strikers you’ve branded “failures” had influenced game TICKET SALES and TEAM MERCHANDISE. That’s where you measure good bargains in the football business,

    1. Matt says:

      How? Football is played on the pitch, players (in this case, strikers) get paid to score goals. Clubs buy strikers to score goals, not to sell shirts. Ticket sales, you would think, are influenced by RESULTS. Results are influenced by players performing, ie – SCORING GOALS.

  3. Liam Corbett Liam Corbett says:

    Cheers, it’s interesting to see how Torres is now performing under Roberto Di Matteo, there’s certainly been an upturn in form of late. With Chelsea in the Semi Finals of the FA Cup and Champions League, he still has a chance to salvage this season and build a decent career at the club

  4. Osmar says:

    Fundamentos impresionantes! buena descripción de los mal llamados fracasos razones para saber por que algunos goleadores no la pasaron bien en el querido Chelsea. Gracias.

  5. Osmar says:

    Y para puntualizar algo más sobre Claudio Pizarro:
    Mourinho pidió la contratación de Pizarro y a mediados del 2007 este llegó al Chelsea. Mou era DT desde Jun 2004 y se fue inexplicablemente del club en set. 2007, se especulaba por malos entendidos con Román Abramóvich y con la previa que le habían impuesto desde Jul. 2007 como su asistente al Israelí Avram Grant quien a la postre quedó como DT del Chelsea y quien excluyo a Pizarro de sus planes.
    Ante las pocas oportunidades de minutos jugados Pizarro pidió su prestamo al Werder Bremen desde ago 2008 hasta jun 2009, regreso al Chelsea en jun 2009 pero el nuevo DT Carlo Ancelotti ya tenía su plantel definido y a los 2 mese el pase de Pizarro fue comprado por el Werder Bremen….goleador de la UEFA Europa League 2009-10 con 9 goles en apenas 8 partidos y menos publicidad como recibe ahora Radamel Falcao el goleador UEFA 2011-12.
    Es el máximo goleador histórico extranjero de la bundesliga y además superando por ejemplo a Uwe Seeler.
    Desde ayer 26-may-12 es nuevamente jugador del Sub Champion league Bayern Munich.
    Días antes se especulaba la vuelta de pizarro a unos de sus ex-club que se disputaban la Champions nada más y nada menos, al final los saludos y abrazos los repartión entre sus dos equipos y seguramente un abrazo a Mourinho quien sabe apreciar la valía de Pizarro “el Bombardero de los Andes”.
    Saludos.

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