Ba is not the new Drogba, but he gives Chelsea options
Whatever else can be said about him, we know now that Roman Abramovich is not insane, at least not by Einstein's definition. Having spent two or three times as much as anybody else would have paid for a striker looking well past his prime in January 2011, the Chelsea owner has paid two or three times less than the true market value of a striker who had scored almost half of his team's goals in the first part of the season. Two years after the arrival of Fernando Torres for $80 million, Demba Ba's signature has cost Chelsea just $12 million.
For all the hoo-hah over Ba's knee (Stoke City manager Tony Pulis' description of "a ticking time bomb" understandably has stuck in the collective memory, despite Ba's good injury record since) and the reported wrangling with agents, squabbling over a cut of the fee like buzzards fighting over a carcass, the move poses two other major questions: Can Ba play with Torres? And is Ba the new Didier Drogba?
It would be a surprise to see Torres and Ba play happily together, even if interim manager Rafael Benitez could be tempted to try it. In a recent interview with Sport magazine, Ba talked about playing on the left at Newcastle United to accommodate Papiss Cisse, who arrived last January and immediately began scoring from the middle.
"If I have to do it again, I will do it," he said, denying reports that he had been angry about the switch. "I won't be happy, but that's not what's important for the team."
In his first season at Newcastle, however, it was clear that a happy Ba is the one you want in the team. "If I enjoy myself on the pitch, then I'm going to have a good performance," he said, having overcome a slow start to score five goals in three consecutive matches and help Newcastle to seven points in the process. By the time he scored his second hat trick of the season, in his ninth appearance, he was being called the Smiling Assassin.
"As long as I'm having fun, I'm happy," he said. "As long as I can say it's fun, that's good."
Both he and Torres prefer to lead the line alone, so the strongest likelihood is that Ba will be interchangeable with Torres, who must be longing for a Saturday afternoon in front of the telly having played every Chelsea match so far this season save a Wednesday night League Cup tie against Manchester United. Though the stats say Ba could tie up that starting spot for himself -- he has 36 goals in 66 Premier League appearances for Newcastle United and West Ham United, while Torres has 14 goals in 66 league appearances for Chelsea -- Abramovich has not previously taken too kindly to seeing his record signing on the bench.
In any case, it makes sense to use each in his best position for different opponents. Chelsea has been accused (sometimes by its own fans) of lacking a Plan B this season, presumably because the long ball to Drogba, who gave Chelsea an instant outlet when the opposition's lines were proving difficult to pass through, is no longer an option. Though Torres has recently suggested that he likes a more direct style of play, he is more often than not tempted to drop deeper and exchange short passes with the trio of creative midfielders around him. He plays facing forward.
Ba is not the new Drogba, but he can be a Drogba-esque figure; certainly he offers a better long-ball option than Torres. Though he studied Thierry Henry and says he likes "beautiful football, passing it around," Ba recognizes his more robust qualities. "Sometimes I just like to be powerful," he told Sport in that interview, which came before Chelsea's reported interest. "I'm OK with that side [of the game]."
It is not simply a case of being good in the air, or of rolling defenders and shooting without a sight of goal. Ba is a player who seems as though he was always expecting the ball, who rarely seems surprised by its flight. His control may not be consistent -- neither was Drogba's -- but it can be superb. His volley against Reading earlier this season was one perhaps only Robin van Persie would have hit in the same way. He can offer Chelsea more than just the frame of an old-fashioned No. 9.
Which is perhaps why Kevin Keegan has expressed concerns about Cisse's ability to fill Ba's shoes now that the deal is done. Though Cisse, too, prefers the central role, and made hay there when Ba was playing on the left, Newcastle has now prioritized signing another forward above even the central defender that the side so desperately needs.
"If we find a striker or a wide player he needs to be a recognized goalscorer," manager Alan Pardew said.
Newcastle is being strongly linked with Loic Remy of Marseille, who can play across the front -- though his best returns this season have come from center forward.
One final question that we might ask is why Chelsea spent any money at all on Ba, ignoring the fact that they already had Daniel Sturridge desperate to play through the middle. Instead the club this week sold Sturridge to Liverpool, where the manager hopes he will take the pressure off another lone forward (admittedly, that's about where the comparison between Torres and Luis Suarez, who has been in mouth wateringly good form, ends).
Sturridge comes with a reputation for overstating his worth, but others routinely understate his record. In 96 league appearances for Manchester City, Chelsea and Bolton Wanderers, he scored 26 goals -- not a dreadful return when you consider that 49 of those were (often brief) substitute appearances, and that for the vast majority of them he was deployed in the kind of wide role in which he made his final appearance for Chelsea, in November.
From there, his decision-making (at all times: I want to score) is undoubtedly questionable but looked less so during the only spell in which he was given a prolonged run in the central role, on loan at Bolton for the second half of the 2010-11 season. He scored eight goals in 12 games. Little wonder then that Brendan Rodgers is planning on putting him straight in at center forward -- even though it means shifting Suarez.
"This has been in the plan for a few months," Rodgers said. "When [Suarez] played at Ajax he played in behind as a No. 10, in between the lines, and he played as a reverse winger from the left side. ... Wherever he plays he will make the same movements and he will find the space because he is a world class player."