According to the Sunday Mirror, Jose Mourinho is going after Didier Drogba once again. The Special One, they say, is worried about the striker situation at Real Madrid as the Spanish giants attempt to chase after a rampant Barcelona for the La Liga title, and has been attempting to shore up his options up front. After an apparently unsuccesful pursuit of Manchester City's Emmanuel Adabayor, the Mirror claims that Mourinho has turned to his old hunting grounds and now wishes for a reunion with Chelsea talisman Didier Drogba. There's no quote, of course, so the story is probably highly fictionalised, but this is hardly the first time this winter we've seen Drogba linked with a move away, and we'll need to examine the possibility of life without Drogba soon enough anyway. This is probably as good a time as any to discuss the implications of the striker leaving the team, whether or not this supposed interest from Madrid materialises.
What would he be worth in the transfer market? Drogba hasn't had the best season this year, but he has the excellent excuse of malaria to fall back on, and hasn't been getting much support from his colleagues. When he was healthy very early on, he was brilliant, and he was involved in Chelsea's play in a way we've rarely seen from him. I don't think it's an exaggeration to say that he's one of the very best centre forwards in the world, and he's also one of the very few players capable of both being highly effective on his own and integrating with other forwards. Didier Drogba is an excellent, excellent striker, despite two months of illness. He's also turning 33 years old in March, which rather puts a damper on the whole 'hey he's pretty awesome' thing. Very few strikers can be consistently successful as they move towards their mid thirties, even taking into account improvements in training techniques and medical technology.
Given his age, ability, wages, and reputation as a superstar, combined with a contract that's set to expire at the end of the 2011/12 season, I'd peg Drogba as being worth around £8-10M on the transfer market (I wouldn't pay that much for him, but I'm certain some teams would). Feel free to agree or disagree with me, but it's pretty clear that he'd fetch nowhere near the £24M he originally cost Chelsea when he moved from Marseille almost seven years ago. A bid north of £8M for Drogba would be enough to seriously defray the cost of anyone they chose to bring in during either the January transfer window or the summer, but it would obviously come at the further cost of having no Didier Drogba!
Drogba's departure would have an interesting effect on the team - we'd probably see Nicolas Anelka move to the point of the attack and Salomon Kalou deployed on the right, which would totally reshape the team's style. As we've seen in the past, Chelsea can be effective without Drogba, but they tend to look a little like Arsenal in doing so, thanks to Anelka's habit of dropping deep into the midfield in an attempt to get play going. Without Drogba, there's a lot of very passing and movement, but very little directness to the attack.
That's not always a bad thing, of course. If you go back to last season, Drogba was left on the bench to start the game that clinched the title for the Blues, when they won 2-1 against Manchester United at Old Trafford. Anelka dropping back into midfield at the beginning of the game enabled Chelsea to dominate possession, and that eventually paid off with Joe Cole's flicked opener after good work by Florent Malouda on the left hand side. Only after United had made tweaks to deal with Anelka's presence did Carlo Ancelotti introduce Drogba, who ended up scoring a goal from an offside position before Fernando Macheda pulled one back with his hand. Despite the obvious illegality of the goal, a fresh Drogba was able to brutalise a United back line who'd been already stretched by Chelsea all game.
Tactically, Drogba is able to create space for his fellow attackers simply by being Didier Drogba. The Ivorian is strong enough and fast enough that the vast majority of centrebacks in the Premier League cannot deal with him by themselves, so he requires the attention of both central defenders even when he doesn't actually have the ball. With Chelsea's wingers prone to cutting inside and Drogba also fond of moving to the wings, the double-team requirement means some fairly gaping holes appear in whichever defence is unfortunate enough to be attempting to track him. Obviously, Chelsea are a capable enough side to stretch the opposition in other ways, but having the option of deploying a healthy Drogba is clearly preferable to not.
Overall, despite not being as big a Drogba fan as some (I don't like the way he doesn't get involved with play when he's having an off day), I think that losing him at this point would be a major blow to Chelsea's title hopes unless the Blues had an instant replacement available. They'd still be a good team, I suspect, and the goals themselves are eminently replaceable, but Chelsea in their most recent incarnation have been able to win by power, finesse, or a combination thereof. We'd lose a lot of the ability to bulldoze through defences and score should Didier Drogba move on - we'd still win our fair share of games through finesse play via Anelka, Malouda, and Lampard, but it would turn the attack into a depressingly one-dimensional thing and make the Blues far easier to play against.
Even for an inflated price related to his actual worth, there's no way that Chelsea should let Drogba leave before they have the ability to replace the muscularity he can bring to the attack.