The Riddle Wrapped Inside the Enigma that is Fernando Torres

It has not been a good week to be Fernando Torres. Admittedly, that could apply to any of the eighteen weeks that have passed since Chelsea’s £50 million misfit last located the onion bag for his employers in a Champions League victory against the overwhelming footballing might of Genk in the group phase of the competition. Torres scored twice that night and there were signs at the time that their record signing was finally seeing a glimmering light at the end of what had seemed like a journey through a never-ending tunnel since the Spaniard’s controversial move to SW6 on transfer deadline day in January 2011. It was seemingly another false dawn for Chelsea’s number nine though, and the culmination of his misery appears to have been made complete this past week as Torres was left out of the Spanish squad to face Venezuela in a friendly match on the final day of February.

A cherry on the top of a particularly stale cake as far as Torres is concerned, with the Spanish forward also suffering the indignity of being left on the bench for his team’s Neapolitan collapse in midweek and starting the match against Bolton in the same place, before a goalless cameo ensured that Torres’ run of matches without a goal stretched to twenty. Where once Torres was a figure of fear, the El Nino blowing down anything or anybody that lay in his path, he has now become a hapless figure of ridicule and an extravagant misfit who has become a shadow of his former self. While Liverpool supporters regale in the Schadenfreude of the former Kop hero having turned from Superman to Clark Kent since discovering the grass is not necessarily greener on the other side, for many casual observers Torres’ decline borders on the tragicomic. Of course, it is a peculiarly British trait to laugh at the misfortunes of  others, not least those who are significantly more talented than the layman Dog and Duck player, but there is also an appreciation of genuine talent in the British psyche which is sometimes not unleashed until the subject’s powers have diminished. Call it the Steve Davis syndrome. Torres’ waning powers are amusing to behold but they are also tinged with pathos for those that can recall those halcyon days when the aforementioned gave the best central defender in the Premier League nightmares every time he faced him on the pitch.

So where did it go wrong for Nando then? Looking back, I think the first signs of malaise can be traced back to the 2010 World Cup. It is easy to forget now, nearly two years on given that Spain made history by winning their first World Cup that July night in Johannesburg, but Spain won the tournament despite the performances of Torres and not because of them. Torres failed to register a single goal in South Africa and had been removed from the starting eleven altogether by the time that Spain played their semi-final against Germany, with Barcelona’s Pedro, another player to be omitted by Vicente Del Bosque this week, taking his place. It had long been the view of Spanish observers that the collective goalscoring might of Fernando Torres and David Villa could not be harnessed effectively within the same team with both forwards striving to be the main man. However, it is worth recalling that just two years earlier, Torres had been the beneficiary in this situation with Spain storming to glory in Euro 2008 and him scoring the decisive winner in the final against Germany. Torres and Villa had started the tournament together, indeed Villa’s hat-trick against Russia in the group phase ensured he won the tournament’s Golden Boot, but an injury picked up in the semi-final against the same opponents ensured Villa missed the final in which Spain changed their formation and Torres flourished.

Torres’ overall performances in the 2010 World Cup finals were abject and he looked like a player who was short of both match fitness and confidence. Both of these factors undoubtedly played a part in Torres’ poor showings in South Africa. Having galvanised Liverpool to runners-up spot in the 2008/09 season with a total of 86 points that would have won the Premier League in the vast majority of its nineteen completed seasons to date, Torres’ 2009/10 season was one to forget as he had to endure a series of niggling injuries while his employers failed dismally to match the heights of their previous campaign, finishing seventh in the Premier League with 23 points fewer than a year earlier while crashing out of the Champions League before the mince pies had been consumed and losing at home to Championship club Reading in the FA Cup. Torres arguably made sacrifices for his team’s poor form throughout that season by returning to first team duty from injury when short of fitness. Whereas other players would have been eased back in to first team duty after a persistent injury, Torres was cast in the role of pawn due to Liverpool’s sheer over-reliance on their star striker at a time when there was a distinct paucity of other decent forwards to call upon at the club. David Ngog, anyone? It is my view that Rafa Benitez’s insistence on constantly rushing Torres back from injury in the 2009/10 season when he had not fully recovered had a profound effect on his showings at that summer’s World Cup and started the process of Torres losing confidence in the resilience of his body which appears to have blighted his game ever since.

Liverpool’s miserable campaign in 2009/10 brought to an end Rafa Benitez’s six year spell in charge at Anfield and while this decision was understandable given Liverpool’s dramatic regression in the space of a year as Benitez needlessly tinkered with his team and unnecessarily alienated Xabi Alonso with his public overtures for Gareth Barry, his departure seemingly had a detrimental effect on Torres’ desire to remain at Liverpool and his performances in a red shirt. Torres’ words after his departure south last January were cryptic, but they hinted at what he perceived as broken promises from the club’s owners at that time, Tom Hicks and George Gillett, who it is safe to say he did not regard as the best football club owners a man could get. If these promises had been that Liverpool would be signing players that would get them challenging for silverware only to see Roy Hodgson arrive on Merseyside and sign Paul Konchesky and Christian Poulsen, one could concede that Torres had a point. My view, however, is that this goes further than just the changes in personnel that were made.

Under Benitez, Torres was one of two men around whom Liverpool’s system of play was tailored along with Steven Gerrard, albeit the performances of fellow Spaniards Pepe Reina and Xabi Alonso were also instrumental. Generally speaking, Benitez had always favoured the 4-2-3-1 formation right back to when he steered Valencia to a La Liga title employing that very formation in the 2003/04 season. The largely unheralded Mista contributed 19 goals playing the lone striker role that campaign for the side from the Mestalla, the same number of goals that a 20 year old protege at Atletico Madrid called Torres chipped in with that campaign. Torres was a better forward than Mista and Benitez took advantage of this fact at Liverpool, instructing his players to look for Torres’ runs and to play the ball to him quickly and to his feet. For the most part of Benitez’s reign, this strategy paid rich dividends as Torres scored 56 goals in 79 league appearances in his first three seasons at Anfield. Even the 2009/10 season which I mentioned earlier was a frustrating campaign for both Liverpool and Torres was none too shabby as far as Torres’ goalscoring ratio was concerned, seeing as he scored 18 goals in his 22 league appearances.

Things only started to unravel the moment Benitez was removed from office, with Torres scoring only 9 times in 23 appearances in 2010/11 before his departure to Chelsea. While this ratio was down on previous seasons and raw statistics do not shed any light on the accusations that Torres was no longer pulling his weight in matches, a ratio of a goal every two and a half matches is one that the likes of Kevin Davies, Kevin Doyle or Emile Heskey would metaphorically kill for. It is also interesting to observe that Torres only missed one round of Premier League fixtures in the whole of 2010/11 season, a record that was better than in any of his previous seasons plying his trade in England. This is something of a paradox when considering that his performances during that season often hinted that he was lacking in fitness.

So is Torres simply no longer the fit specimen he was back in the 2008/09 season when he seemed to have Nemanja Vidic on toast? Torres certainly does not seem to be as quick as he was back in those days, but it is not uncommon for players – and especially forwards who rely on their pace – to lose some of their initial pace off the ground as they get into their late 20s and injuries and wear and tear have taken effect. Generally though, the best players can adapt to the limitations imposed by their body. Ryan Giggs has managed to prolong his career by playing the majority of the past decade as a central midfielder since the bursts of acceleration that characterised his game during his first decade at Old Trafford started to elude him. It is not as though Torres’ pace has completely escaped him either. Certainly, his quickness of foot and thought appeared to be in evidence at Stamford Bridge earlier this month when his pinpoint cross was smashed in on the volley by compatriot Juan Mata in Chelsea’s epic 3-3 draw against Manchester United. The lazy cliche that ‘Torres has lost a yard of pace’ as trotted out by both professional and bar-room pundits is certainly not entirely without foundation, but it would appear to this observer that Torres’ problems are more a case of mind over matter.

What seems to have occurred is that Torres’ fragile confidence has riddled his game with indecision. When he was at the top of his game, everything came together so seamlessly, so naturally. He timed his runs at the right time, the ball found him in the right positions and more often than not, Torres pulled the trigger with unerring accuracy, as borne out by the statistics quoted earlier in this article. The problems for Torres throughout his Chelsea career seem to stem from a chronic indecision that has enveloped his game. He still possesses very impressive close control yet all too often he becomes laboured and whereas once Torres played purely on instinct, there have been numerous occasions during his Chelsea career and in his final months at Anfield where Torres has taken an extra touch or overrun the ball where he would previously have used one touch to make a decisive contribution. I do not see this regression being due to Torres’ general level of fitness, but purely through the severe mental deterioration that Torres has suffered throughout his sustained period of drought in front of goal.

In short – Torres’ confidence is shot and he is suffering from the centre forward’s equivalent of what darts players would call the yips. Former darts world champion Eric Bristow was struck down by this degenerative psychological condition while at the peak of his powers in the 1980s and the origins came about from the suffocating pressure of remaining at the top of his craft. Bristow described how when the condition was at its worst he would struggle to release the dart from his hand and the comparison with Torres can be seen in the Spanish forward’s reluctance to shoot first time, where once it was almost as insinctive an action for him as breathing.

So far this season up to and including Chelsea’s match against Bolton, Torres has featured in 21 Premier League matches for Chelsea this season in which he has scored just two goals. The alarming statistic, however, is to be found in Torres’ shot count for the season with 45 shots in those 21 games. By way of a contrast, Torres’ Chelsea team-mate Frank Lampard has mustered the same number of shots this season having played one game more and from which he has scored 10 goals. Whilst taking into consideration that Lampard’s shoot on sight policy will always boost his statistics in this area, the fact remains that Lampard is a midfielder and indeed has been required to operate in a deeper role for much of the time that Andre Villa-Boas has been in the dugout at Stamford Bridge, thereby curtailing his forays forward into genuine shooting positions. It is disconcerting to see a centre forward with an average of just over two shots a match and this would appear to support the argument that Torres is living in fear of pulling the trigger since he has become separated from his confidence.

The questions that pervade are where does Torres go from here and can he ever salvage the reputation he once had as one of the world’s most clinical finishers? It was interesting to hear Torres’ manager at Chelsea at the time he joined the club, Carlo Ancelotti, opine that Chelsea should cut their losses and that Torres should consider returning to Liverpool ‘in the right atmosphere’. Given the acrimonious nature of Torres’ departure from Anfield, it is hard to envisage the atmosphere ever being right for a reconciliation, although if Torres could be secured for a knockdown price then Kenny Dalglish could consider taking a gamble on the former Liverpool number nine in the event of Luis Suarez departing the club should the media firestorm that has surrounded him in recent months prove too much for either the player or the club. These are not circumstances that I foresee occurring and so much will boil down to what Chelsea decide to do over the summer, now that Villas-Boas’ future has been decided. The Portuguese’s job security was almost permanently on the floor and while it is possible to elicit sympathy for the young manager’s plight because of the necessary transition that is required at the club, it is surely a fact of life that the likely elimination from the Champions League against Napoli, coupled with poor league form, placed Villas-Boas in a point of no return.

One of the interesting rumours concerning the Chelsea manager’s post which has yet to become vacant has been the suggestion that Rafael Benitez could be lined up as Villas-Boas’ replacement now Abramovich has chosen to activate his itchy trigger finger. Given the phoney war that has existed between Chelsea and Liverpool since their Champions League duels, it is hard to imagine such an appointment would be greeted with universal approval along the Kings Road. It would be an interesting twist as far as Torres’ future at the club is concerned, however, as the best moments of Torres’ club career have largely been played under Benitez’s tutelage. Ancelotti’s comments suggest that Abramovich was the driving force behind Torres signing for Chelsea in the first place. That is a truism in one sense in as much as it was Abramovich’s riches that financed the £50 million deal. But, just as Shevchenko arrived in London as he was the oligarch’s favourite AC Milan player, it could be the case that Torres was also the owner’s ‘project’ as is the buzzword these days and so Abramovich would rather keep hold of Torres rather than sell him at a hefty loss and so entrusting Benitez to galvanise his former charge would be one way of setting out to achieve this aim. It would represent a major leap of faith though given that Torres’ barren spell has continued for so long now that it can no longer be considered as a blip or a temporary problem.

What Torres’ golden days at Liverpool and with Spain would seem to show is that he has played his best football when he is the focal point of the team and when he plays up front on his own, or at least is the main targetman in the team. At Chelsea, he has tended to be marginalised much of the time with Chelsea playing 4-3-3 with Torres or Drogba playing centrally in a front three with Mata and Sturridge either side of the frontman. Benitez has tended to favour 4-2-3-1 as previously mentioned and it has also been suggested that Juan Mata would benefit from playing centrally, possibly in the hole between midfield and the forward line. In the event of Benitez arriving in West London, you could see Mata being utilised in that way, with Daniel Sturridge continuing in the unfavoured right sided role he has become accustomed to filling this season. It is all speculation of course given that there is as yet no managerial vacancy that has arisen, but this is possibly one way that Torres could fit in to Chelsea’s system of play. That said, Torres had a full month of being Chelsea’s central figure in their forward line while Didier Drogba was at the African Cup of Nations and while his overall play in that period was decent, he still did not muster a single goal.

Therefore, we seem to have returned to square one. There are no obvious answers to the solving the riddle wrapped inside the enigma that is Fernando Torres, not least because his metamorphosis from the Emilio Butragueno of the new millennium to the Luther Blissett of the new millennium is a mystery. There have been contributory factors of which Benitez’s constant rushing of his star forward back from injury during the 2009/10 season appear to have sown the seeds of self-doubt that have followed him since, but it appears to have become a gradual and painful deterioration that has taken over Torres in the past two years. Liverpool supporters have suggested that Torres does not feel loved in his new environment, but this seems to be at odds with what the player himself has said and Chelsea supporters’ appreciation of their goal shy forward does not appear to have wavered throughout his crisis of confidence. If Torres was to leave Chelsea, a move to La Liga would seem his best bet, but he would not be suited to Barcelona where the presence of Messi and Villa (once fit again) would ensure he is not the focal point in that team which is what he craves. As a former Atletico player, a move to Real Madrid is highly unlikely, while neither his former club or Valencia are likely to be able to afford him. Moneybags Malaga would seem to be the dark horses should Torres decide to return to his homeland.

Ultimately, the identity of any successor to Villas-Boas could turn out to decide whether Torres’ future lies at Chelsea or elsewhere and also whether Torres ever recovers the confidence and belief that marked him out as the centre forward par excellence throughout his time at Liverpool, or remains the shadow of that player that his led such a miserable existence for the past two years and particularly since he joined Chelsea, seemingly suffocated by his inflated transfer fee.

One thought on “The Riddle Wrapped Inside the Enigma that is Fernando Torres

  1. Cracking stuff here, Joe. Would be interesting to see if Benitez does get the Chelsea job – though it now seems unlikely – and if that would galvanise Torres. Even though I’m no Chelsea fan I kind of yearn for him to get back to his best. It’s kind of sad to see him loping around the pitch looking forlorn. I feel that in a few years I’ll be telling incredulous youngsters “no, honestly, Torres used to be brilliant” and they won’t believe me.

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