Hit and miss: that’s an honest way to describe Chelsea’s history with forwards in the Premier League. For every Didier Drogba, there have been a couple of Adrian Mutus on the books at any given time over the past couple of decades. Each has weighed down the team, no matter their pedigree and prior achievements. But why have the Blues and their famed forwards often struggled to match their rivals in the league?
The question demands a look at some of the best and worst of recent years, in particular Hernán Crespo and Andriy Shevchenko. Both joined the team with the express intention of taking up the goalscoring mantle, for fees and wages befitting some of the biggest European stars at the time. Between them, though, they failed to push the club forward and left a tainted legacy along with most of the strikers around them. Nonetheless, it all began rather promisingly, as an injection of Russian cash and Champions League progress transformed the team into true title contenders.
Following Roman Abramovich’s takeover soon after the turn of the millennium, Chelsea began overpaying for some of the world’s most famous footballers, making it rain before Financial Fair Play was a glint in UEFA’s eye. They poached Crespo from Internazionale in the summer of 2003, despite a number of previous injuries dampening the hype surrounding a player who had been the most expensive in the world just three years before. Due to accounting issues, the final fee was never made entirely clear, although somewhere in the region of £12 million is generally accepted. However, it is common knowledge that he ended up costing the team roughly £1 million per game when factoring in wages and total time spent with the club.
In his first season in London, he bagged 10 goals from 19 appearances, as the Blues lost out to Arsenal’s famed Invincibles side. Despite finding the net fairly regularly, he seemed disinterested and failed to settle. He openly pined for Italy, which understandably left Chelsea miffed. Their new coach was also less than impressed that his star striker viewed his club like an elaborate prison, and duly decided to enact one of his typical power plays.
When José Mourinho took charge of Chelsea in 2004, it looked to be the end for Crespo. The manager moved for Didier Drogba and Mateja Kežman, while the Argentine made the mistake of turning up late for pre-season training. His coach quickly moved to quash any form of insubordination, and his words at the time are classic Mourinho in hindsight: “It’s up to him. I don’t want players who are not 100 percent ready to stay. If he has one percent of doubt I don’t want him to stay.”
In essence, he questioned the player’s commitment to the club, and duly worked to ship him out as quickly as possible when his suspicions were confirmed. Regardless, Crespo was unwilling to take a pay cut to ease his departure along, despite Chelsea trying their best to shoo him out of the back door.
Read | Didier Drogba: a man of peace
Teams in Italy were receptive to the idea of bringing Crespo back, but they baulked at his wages and the sheer decadence of paying him more than their highest earners. So he went out on loan instead, and stayed contracted to the London side for five years. He reached a Champions League final with AC Milan in 2005, scoring two goals as his side capitulated in the Miracle of Istanbul.
Productive loan spells at both Milan clubs aside, he ended up as little more than an afterthought at his parent club. He seemed reasonably blasé about the situation at the time, and he moved back to Internazionale once more in 2006. The extended loan deal lasted until 2008, when he signed another contract with the side. Ironically, Mourinho was the manager at Inter in 2008, unceremoniously moving the striker away once more to Genoa.
It finally brought an end to one of the more expensive mistakes in football, although the player sees his time in London slightly differently. In a feature with FourFourTwo, he showed his thinking at the time: “I had a chance to go to Milan, a team I had grown up watching, Marco van Basten in particular. So I said: “Look, José, this is very difficult, but if I have to choose between Chelsea and Milan then I’m going to choose Milan’.”
It contrasts slightly compared to the flippant remarks he made whilst in Italy, when a proposed 50 percent pay cut caused an angry response: “There has been conversation about going back to Chelsea but I’m just not sure it is possible now Am I to take half of what I was paid because they no longer want to pay me what is written on my contract? Some people would say that option is insulting. My time in Italy has been good and it will be difficult to go to Chelsea. I cannot understand it because it is not like they do not have the money.”
He later cited numerous reasons why he thought it hadn’t worked in England, including injuries, the different playing style, and a failure to assimilate to life in England. A move to Inter proved to be the right choice, although it’s fair to say that it’s clear where his loyalties lay at the time.
Alternatively, his lack of commitment to the cause at Chelsea could be interpreted as the logical conclusion of overpaying a star to join an emerging team. At the time, Italy was still a dominant force in world football, and money was the only reason he made the move in the first place. Both knew the terms of the arrangement, and the money meant there was no way to spurn the Blues’ advances.
Overall, 20 goals from 49 appearances in the Premier League isn’t the worst of records, and he does have a solitary title from his time at Chelsea. Whoever we choose to believe, nobody comes out looking any better from the situation, aside from Italian clubs who were shrewd in their negotiations with their naive English counterparts.
Read | The lovable wizardry of Gianfranco Zola
During a spending spree that would make most sheikhs blush, Adrian Mutu was picked up from Parma in 2003. The plan was to improve their overall firepower and Mutu looked to be the man at €22 million. Another to face the ire of Mourinho, they clashed after a disagreement over his injury status during international duty. Complaining is another classic Mourinho move, but responding publically probably wasn’t the best course of action for the striker.
So his cards were marked well before he failed a drugs test in 2004. Of course, testing positive for cocaine didn’t help proceedings, and he was released from the team and subsequently banned for seven months by the FA. It was a major embarrassment to the side and a warning sign that went unheeded in the future.
As for Mateja Kežman, one sorry season and four league goals were his lot in the Premier League, as the Blues ruined both the ambitions and reputation of another would-be world beater. He couldn’t replicate his amazing PSV form in the Premier League, so Chelsea threw him onto the scrapheap and took another roll of the dice. Crespo was right; the club could afford to move on with the next big thing.
That’s meant with no disrespect to either the club or the player, as it was tough to lead the line for Chelsea in those days. The manager had crafted a well-oiled machine that relied on a strong striker, while Kežman was a pacey finisher in the form of a more technical Jamie Vardy. It was never going to work, and the team have continually utilised their second strikers ineffectively in the following years. Just ask Loïc Remy, Alexandre Pato or Radamel Falcao.
At Abramovich’s insistence, Andriy Shevchenko joined the Blues along with Michael Ballack in the summer of 2006. Chelsea’s owner was known to be a fan of the Ukrainian forward, although Mourinho seemed less than impressed, given he had little say in the deal.
Drogba had finally evolved into the all-conquering talisman of his latter years, and it was going to be hard to displace the Ivorian from a role that he seemed custom built for. At the time, it looked like there would soon be a selection headache for the manager, but a good one nevertheless. It seemed like the equivalent of deciding between taking a tank or a helicopter to work. Either way, both beat public transport.
Read | The rapid decline of the once-great poacher Mateja Kežman
Shevchenko was a serial winner, though it’s true that time may have begun to wear on the £30 million player. Regardless, he was a good signing for a team in the hunt for the Champions League, and most fans were looking forward to seeing his trademark curlers at Stamford Bridge.
Then he actually began playing, and it was like watching Kežman flailing, or some future echo of Fernando Torres. More than a yard off the pace, his intelligence meant little when his body seemed unable to get to grips with the speed of the Chelsea machine. He still had superb technique, but failed to provide more than the odd moment of magic.
Like others before him, he just didn’t fit up front for the Blues and ended up sticking out for all the wrong reasons. Worst of all, he looked old. He drew similar pity to that of a punch-drunk fighter, although it did come with the caveat that he was earning a reported wage of £120,000 per week.
Another striker to end up being tossed onto the heap, Shevchenko only scored a handful of goals despite numerous chances. Even a move back to the San Siro in 2008 couldn’t bring back the magic, and he retired after a successful return to hometown club Dynamo Kyiv.
Anyone who’s ever had a boss that doesn’t like you knows that it must have been difficult for Sheva when it came to Mourinho. The pair were accused of trying to undermine one another as internal politics spilled onto the pitch. Abramovich was a big fan of the forward, and the player had the ear of the owner. The manager soon dropped Sheva after some indifferent form and went on to enter another war of words with a striker. Mourinho was also happy to stick the knife in via the press after he left: “He was like a prince in Milan and at Chelsea our philosophy was different, we had no princes. Everybody needs to work like everybody else and everybody needs to prove he deserves to play.”
With just nine goals from 48 appearances, Chelsea would have arguably been better off using Carlton Cole.
Recent struggles aside, Diego Costa represented a couple of years of stability at the Blues. If fit, he was generally likely to score, although he too suffered from homesickness. He’s another forward that seems to care little for Chelsea, despite being thanked for the seasono by Antonio Conte. With Costa likely to leave, it’s notable that the formerly highly-rated Michy Batshuayi seems to have been overlooked in favour of new signing Álvaro Morata.
Read | Fire and Ice: in celebration of Hasselbaink and Gudjohnsen at Chelsea
The Blues have thrown money at their striker problems in the past, and they’ve arguably continued to show little caution. Costa was always an injury worry even before he signed, while Batshuayi was lucky to see more than his customary two minutes despite looking lively. Morata is another gamble, and nobody knows what’s next. With Chelsea’s history you can never really be certain, but Real Madrid’s reserve striker could be the one to break the curse.
The most prestigious of forwards have been sacrificed at the altar of Stamford Bridge, while the Romelu Lukakus of the world are busy readying themselves for a season spent proving why it’s sometimes a good idea to give more chances to young forwards – especially those who have proven they can score at Premier League level.
Chelsea overpaid to join the footballing elite, but there was seemingly no other way to break the duopoly held by Messrs Wenger and Ferguson. Whatever the price tag, it’s clear that a number of the players who joined weren’t entirely happy, despite being offered too much to reasonably turn down. In all honesty, it makes sense. The problem with so-called smaller clubs spending big is that it’s generally harder to get big time players to join up when they first begin to realise their ambitions. It’s why they pay such extravagant wages, but it makes it hard to move them on when they become surplus to requirements. Just look at Manchester City, shedding the last of their squad as they aim for domination this time round.
Both Shevchenko and Crespo had little to prove, and wanted to win the Champions League in Italy. Whether it was commitment issues or just the pace of the game, both proved to be costly mistakes. They held back the progression of the team, but it’s still understandable that they took an offer which was hard to refuse.
If it wasn’t for Drogba, Chelsea would have struggled to win as many trophies as they have over the last decade. Regardless, the competition provided by Shevchenko helped to raise Drogba to the highest echelon, and the experience caused him to supplant the next of his replacements in Torres.
There’s always risk involved when you spend big, and playing for Chelsea up front takes a certain type of mettle. The engorged price tags and media attention that come along with the experience are just too much for some, but a hungry forward has more to prove than an aloof, established professional who’d rather be elsewhere. Above all, it could have been worse – at least they didn’t sign Robinho.
By James Milin-Ashmore @jamoashmore