Wednesday, 13 April 2011

What's eating Fernando Torres?

Watching Liverpool play freely on Monday evening - particularly enjoying the vim and brio of Suarez  - and having read this excellent piece from Jonathan Wilson my thoughts over the last 24 hours or so have drifted to Fernando Torres.

Torres is a very fine player and, given the sod's law of blogging, he will no doubt make this piece redundant by firing a winner this weekend!

To a limited extent, I think Torres' problems have been exaggerated. There have been flashes of brilliance in his time at Chelsea but they have only been flashes - the flick around the right-back against United last week, an equally flashy turn against Wigan, his header that brought a fine save from van der Sar. Flashes of brilliance arenn't enough when a club has paid £50m for your services.

Wilson is correct to identify that Torres does not excel in a traditional 4-4-2. He has looked sharper when Chelsea have played a variant of 4-3-3. He has generally worked better when operating as a lone striker - either (briefly) for Spain or, more obviously, when supported by either a deep-lying second striker or an attacking midfielder at Liverpool.

Chelsea have chosen to play a more overt 4-4-2 since he has arrived which doesn't bring the best out of him or, I'd argue, Chelsea.

Torres strengths have always been legion. He is extremely quick - even if his numerous injuries have dampened this - and this means playing on the last defender, or any formation which means he gets the chance to be one on one with a defenders, is a fine tactic. So many of his goals for Liverpool saw him either beating one man or getting the ball on the offside line. The passing of Gerrard, Alonso and Benayoun often got the ball to Torres in the right areas. Chelsea's midfield do not play in that manner.

Ancelotti has said that Torres likes to ''receive the ball at a certain point... on the wrong side of the centre-back'. It is telling that this type of ball rarely arrives. Chelsea are not necessarily capable, with their current midfield, of providing that ball. 

Torres' strengths are emphasised in a system where there is deeper lying striker/attacking midfielder as the defence may have to play a higher defensive line but, even if they do not, one of the centre-backs is likely to look to cover that individual.

Even if you disagree with that analysis, this matter is confounded as it seems to me that Torres isn't playing in the same areas as he did at Liverpool. He seems to pick the ball up very deep, often with banks of defenders ahead of him. I suspect that this is partly down to his keenness to impress, partly a reaction to a lack of through-balls and partly down to Chelsea's expectations of a striker.

Wilson, and TheFootyBlog, are correct to identify that Torres - a player with numerous injuries in recent years - has not had an extended break due to the rigours of international football. Spain's obsession with calling him up when returning from injury (often for friendlies) and Liverpool's need to rush him back generally have undoubtedly meant that he is exhausted.

All of this has led to a supreme lack of confidence. Torres' once sublime touch looks leaden and heavy. His decision-making is poor - rather than backing his instinct, he will go round a player or take an extra touch.  This matters because a lack of confidence becomes self-fulfilling. A player who has suffered injuries and a lack of form begins to doubt his ability. When that occurs, he makes the wrong choices which mean he is even less likely to score - attacking his confidence further.

As well as the goals outlined above, Torres' exceptional close control, which seems to have all but deserted him, often meant he scored quite astonishing goals for Liverpool whilst in a crowded area. 

It is difficult for those outside of Merseyside to understand the pressure cooker of life at either of the Merseyside clubs but in particular Liverpool FC (those in Glasgow will have a good idea). It is a goldfish bowl at the best of times but in recent years, with the extended takeover battle, the departure of Benitez, the arrival of Roy Hodgson, an increasingly weary Gerrard and the departures of players of the quality of Mascherano, Alonso and Benayoun this only heaped more pressure on Liverpool's most gifted player. Torres struggled at Liverpool and his struggles have only intensified at Chelsea.

A season that started brightly for the club has dimmed spectacularly. An experienced squad seemed to age in a matter of months - totemic players, like Terry and Lampard, who used to drive the club seemed to age rapidly and lose their powers. Drogba, a force of nature at his best, seemed to be in a permanent sulk. Malouda lost form when last season he was terrific.

Torres, therefore, entered a squad that was ageing, not harmonious and not winning. He cost a British transfer record - £50m - and was expected to hit the ground running. What should have been a fresh start has become even more nighmarish for a man with little confidence and next to no form. He is supposed to be the saviour of a rabble that has unravelled since Wilkins left the club. 

Chelsea's formation - as above - does not bring out the best in Torres. There is no 4-3-3 or general wing play that can assist him. Neither is there a very advanced attacking midfielder or second striker. Torres has no Gerrard equivalent. For once, the Lampard/Gerrard debate definitively comes down on the side of the Scouser. His style of play brings the best out of a player like Torres.

It is difficult to defend a man who is paid an enormous amount of money and cost a tremendous amount of money. However, to expect him to solve Chelsea's problems is naive. Chelsea's problems are myriad and playing a striker with a lack of form and confidence in a formation that does not draw the best out of him is one of them.

If Chelsea wish to get the best out of Torres it seems that they will need to spend in the summer to rebalance their team and they need to look at how and when Torres played best. Roman may need to reach for his chequebook again - to build a new team and build a team around Torres.



Caleb said...

Brilliant piece as usually Rob! I agree and have recently written about this issue as well ;-) I think Lampard/Terry/Drogba have to be sold or at least given reduced roles. I do not even think Chelsea would have to sign anyone (Although Kaka and Neymar to support Torres in attack would be top notch). With Gael Kukata, McEachren, and Sturridge waiting on the wings you have some class to start using at the end of this season to prepare for more prominent roles next.

Scott said...

Really enjoyed this Rob. You are right with most of your points. Chelsea need to freshen up & change if they want a world class Torres, who as I said needs a rest. I still think lampard given time can play in the same team, but Drogba needs to go.

dearieme said...

His decline has been sadder than Rooney's. Still, even the truculent potato has improved, so there's hope for Torres yet.

Thomas Levin said...

I think it is time for Chelsea to sell alot of the players that they have. They have held on to many of them for two long, the investments made in signing players will not be recouped in the sale of any of them.

Even Torres will not make anything near £20m if he was to be sold on now, 27 injury ridden his career has peaked I feel.

There are only few players that should not be sold in that Chelsea squad. But there is no one coming through the ranks to replace those players going.

The signing of Lucas a player that could add some spark to the midfield could be inspired (though he's a big gamble and not certain he will settle especially in the first season). They now need to start building around Torres with fresh talent that have yet to hit their peak yet.

Torres still has alot to offer, but that £50m spent on him probably would have been better used buying 3 younger first team players. I think Roman should right off this season and start supporting his manager in rebuilding for the long-term.

dot24two said...

Nice piece, as is Jonathan Wilson's.
One thing that does bother me about the confidence issue that he might be having at Chelsea, is that he may have found that on arriving, there was very little in the way of 'soul' or 'ethos' at the club, unlike the way that Hillsborough or Dalglish binds the club, the players and the fans together at Liverpool.
In a sense, he may have found nothing to 'believe' in, and that he's just another professional player, which might have come as a bit of a shock.
One other thing; with regard to the style of play needed to get the best out of him, I wouldn't be entirely surprised if FSG/Dalglish were to repeat the trick over this summer, and Gerrard were to start next season in a blue shirt.

MentatYP said...

I would say you give Torres too much credit by claiming that his touch was "once sublime". I don't think it ever was, really. His gifts were athletic--fast, strong, good in the air--while his touch was adequate at best. He's never been the type to dribble past defenders except for that admittedly excellent move he does in the box where he drags the ball behind him with his right foot and lightning-quick pushes it ahead of him and beyond the defender, pouncing on it just in time to beat the keeper. Other than that his ball control is rather mediocre I think. Think Ryan Babel, except not forced to play out on the wing where his weaknesses would show more glaringly, and with a ruthless streak when his confidence is up.

I agree with the tactical analysis though. Chelsea clearly need to rethink and rejig their formation and personnel if Torres is to be their centerpiece. Summer should be an interesting and busy time for Chelsea.

Chukwudi said...

Problem is that Torres is a poacher who tends to drift in from the left at times. I think it may be a case of injuries, setup, pressure and just needing a rest! I'm constantly amazed at how value changes so quickly in football. Excellent article Rob and I'm just revisiting some of your pieces in April and May. You're one of the best football writers period.