It is fair to say Fernando Torres has not been at his best since his move to West London. Among fans of opposition teams, the £50 million man’s poor form was initially met with amusement, but it went on for so long it is difficult to not just pity him now, while Chelsea fans’ sympathies have understandably evolved into resentment. Hundreds of millions have been spent on linking the likes of Juan Mata, Eden Hazard and Oscar with Torres, giving him a shiny, new supply line of chances to finish. After Roberto di Matteo made Roman Abramovich’s Champions League dream come true, perhaps the Russian’s new goal is to make Torres a functioning member of the team and, when Di Matteo couldn’t do that, he turned to the man who oversaw Torres’ finest moments: Rafa Benitez.
At Liverpool, Benitez had taken El Nino from Atletico Madrid and had him fulfil his potential. With Andriy Shevchenko on the wane at Chelsea, the Spaniard became probably the most complete forward in the world. Quick and able to finish from any angle, he was a certainty to score, yet he also contributed to the rest of the team’s play – acting as a foil for Steven Gerrard’s bursts beyond him, pulling into channels to offer a quick outlet for long balls and defending from the front.
After shocking mismanagement by Roy Hodgson and chronic fitness problems, Torres didn’t want to stay on Merseyside any longer, making his much-maligned transfer to Chelsea. Initial poor form was not all that surprising after his turbulent final year at Liverpool and the even greater attention his price gave him, yet Torres simply never recovered. Everyone was just waiting for his first goal, then everything would slot into place; 903 minutes later, he scored his first Chelsea goal against Aston Villa, but his form didn’t improve. There were gluts of goals between long barren periods, but it wasn’t just the lack of scoring that was poor – it was his overall performances.
By the time Benitez took over at Chelsea, Torres was not just an average player, but a completely different one. He was not merely worse at his previous playing style: he completely changed the way he played. At his best, Torres was the man leading the line, perched somewhere across the opposition’s defence. The way he shifted along the line meant he struggled when playing with a strike partner as they interfered with his space, but two strikers were not needed when Torres was so dangerous. What made him so effective though was his pace – wherever he placed himself, he would more than likely win a race against his opponent. Even in tight spots, his dribbling was not so much the glued feet of someone like Lionel Messi as large obvious movements, shifting his balance quicker than his startled opponent could.
Nowadays, Torres does not sit on that defensive line like he used to, instead coming deeper and looking to have it played into his feet with his back to the defenders, which does not play to the qualities that made him a superstar and slows down Chelsea’s play. There are a number of reasons why this could be happening: Vicente Del Bosque’s use of a false nine as Spain coach may have encouraged Torres to play in a less direct manner, although the relatively short period of time he spends with the national team would make it less likely; his lack of pace means he does not think he can get in behind or around defenders anymore; his lack of confidence means he would prefer to take a few touches on the ball in space than risk losing it going one-on-one against a defender or, worse, his lack of confidence means he does not want to get into those goalscoring positions and mess up the finish. Regardless of why it is happening, it does not work: Torres holding back deeper adds little to Chelsea’s play and, since Torres rarely makes runs towards the posts or even across goal anymore, they suffer as they do not have a proper outlet in the middle.
Nevertheless, Torres has made a notable improvement under Benitez, and seven goals in six games would suggest he is a player in form, especially with one so stylishly taken as his header against Aston Villa. However, these goals are bright spots in otherwise uninspiring games for the most part. There’s more of a willingness to chase down opposition players when Chelsea don’t have the ball, yet there’s still noticeable lapses in confidence that plague his performances. He still hangs back when he should be making more ambitious runs, and the ball does not stick in his feet like it used to – even his rabona on Sunday was pointed out as indicative of him not wanting to use his weaker left foot. It is progress but it is not the player Chelsea spent £50million on.
Initially the transfer just seemed a bad move for Torres – neither him nor Drogba were suited to a strike partnership and Chelsea’s more relaxed defensive style didn’t suit him either – yet now it is hard to come up with any other explanation than him just being past it. Years of injuries may well have taken their toll on a player whose main strengths revolved around his athleticism, stealing away his ability to make the runs he used to, or a lack of confidence and exasperating atmosphere meaning he simply doesn’t want to. Either way, Torres cuts a depressing figure up front for Chelsea, alone.
This post first appeared on Betting Expert.