The World Cup has taken over my life. Ever since the opening ceremonies on Thursday, June 12, I have been watching game after game after game of soccer. I find myself calling it football from time to time, referring to the field as the pitch and their cleats as boots. I’ve bought in.
You can view the other installments of our series looking at Super Subs from the 2014 World Cup here.
One of my most anticipated teams to watch was the Ivory Coast (Côte d’Ivoire)1because of their long range bombing style of play and the presence of two of my favorite English Premier League players; Wilfried Bony and Yaya Touré. Though these two Ivorians played well, with Bony recording the equalizer, it was another man that predictably stole the show.
Despite playing just 29 minutes and recording zero official box score stats, those watching noticed one undeniable thing; the introduction of Didier Drogba, the former Captain and goal-scoring maven, resulted in a quick two-goal barrage and a victory for Les Elephants.
Côte d’Ivoire started the game in what appeared to be a 4-2-3-1 formation with the outside wingers, Gervinho and Salomon Kalou given reign to make runs far up the field with Bony as the target striker.2 At the 62 minute mark, when Drogba was subbed in for defensive midfielder Serey Die, the Ivorians seemed to switch to more of a 4-1-3-2 with Touré moving to his more traditional position at Manchester City of defensive midfielder and Drogba slotting in over the top of Bony in a two striker set.
It took four minutes for the former-Chelsea striker to put several unofficial stamps on the game. The first play Drogba was involved in resulted in a beautiful passing set and a scoring chance for Gervinho.
After applying pressure on the Japanese midfielder and forcing a pass, the ball was given back to Drogba. The 36-year-old veteran used his strength to hold onto the ball as he brought it into the right side of Japan’s penalty box before delivering a back-heel pass to Gervinho. The ball never made it to the net, or even the keeper for that matter, but the chance created was immediate and quality by Drogba.
Before being a part of the upcoming Ivory Coast goals, Drogba put the defense in a bind by forcing Masato Morishige (One of Japan’s center backs) into a foul and a yellow card for his efforts. The 6’2″ Ivorian shielded the ball from Morishige and took the foul that started a goal scoring build up.
In the 64th minute, Les Elephants got their first goal on the board. You can see at the bottom left of the GIF below, Drogba keeping the left back outside of the middle of the box and allowing Bony more room. This was the least of his contributions as this goal was more because of a great advance cross by right back, Serge Aurier3 and a beautiful near post run and finish by Bony. Drogba’s presence was noted by the defense and would have a greater effect on the second goal.
The ever-present Drogba forced the Japanese defense to keep track of multiple scoring threats. What the next GIF doesn’t showcase is that Drogba kept pushing the defense further back toward their own penalty area after play resumed. With a steady build up from his teammates, Drogba kept creating more and more space for the Ivory Coast by being a threat as a target man that could get past the back line. But, what is shown below is that Drogba holds the attention of both center backs. While applying direct pressure to Morishige, Maya Yoshida, the other Japanese center back, gets pulled closer to Drogba to block the impending cross. This gave room on the near post for Gervinho to make a run and receive another stunning feed off the foot of Aurier and finish near post.
Japanese goalkeeper, Eiji Kawashima, certainly should have stopped Gervinho’s attempt, but the ball ended up in the back of the net and simply putting that ball on goal led to a great result for Gervinho.
The 3 million euro man from Galatasaray SK4 has created an interesting problem for Ivory Coast Head Coach Sabri Lamouchi. Should a man that made such a big difference be kept on the bench going forward? One of the biggest factors in this decision will be whether or not Drogba shows Lamouchi that he has the fitness to play the first 60 minutes instead of the last 30. If he can’t sustain that level of play for at least 60 minutes at 36 years old, and his fitness has been questioned recently,5 then the best use of him is as the new super sub.
All of this is not to lift Drogba up as the best player, based on stats, off the ball movement or intangibles. I’m not taking anything away from the play of Toure, Gervinho, Bony or especially Aurier. But, it isn’t a coincidence that Les Elephants got both their goals immediately after Drogba hit the pitch.
The beautiful game is so entwined in the movements of every player and the effect they have on the opposing team at any one moment; much like basketball and hockey. Drogba’s presence certainly changed the way the Japanese defense attempted to guard the Ivorians, unfortunately for Japan, the adjustments came too late and the Ivory Coast walked away victorious.
I’ll leave you with two more Drogba plays, coming in the 80th and 85th minutes respectively.