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Has Fernando Torres Got His Mojo Back?

November 20th, 2011 SB Tang Leave a comment Go to comments

From 31 January 2011, the date of his British record £50m transfer from Liverpool to Chelsea, to Wednesday 19 October 2011, Fernando Torres scored just 3 goals in 26 competitive appearances for Chelsea.

However, on Wednesday 19 October 2011, Torres scored twice against Genk in a Champions League group stage match at Stamford Bridge, exhibiting the pace, tactical intelligence, technique, strength and finishing ability which made him one of the most feared strikers in the world from 2007 to 2009 and perhaps the most revered player at Anfield since Kenny Dalglish.

The salient question then is — has Fernando Torres finally got his mojo back?

In order to answer that question, it will first be necessary to determine what caused his dramatic loss of form in the first place and whether those causal factors have now been ameliorated.

There are three possible causes for Torres’s 18 month form slump (taking the starting point as 18 April 2010, the date of the knee surgery which ended his 2009–10 season).

1. Burn-Out and Injuries

The first and most obvious explanation is a combination of burn-out and injuries. Torres has been playing first team football since the age of 17. His fitness record during his time at Atletico Madrid was impressive — from 2002–03 (the season Atletico returned to La Liga) to 2006–07 (Torres’s last season at Atletico), Torres averaged 35 league starts per season and suffered no serious injuries. As Torres explained in an interview with FourFourTwo early in his debut season in England after missing a couple of games through injury: “I think it was the first time I’ve ever been injured for more than a game and I really suffered.

Since Torres’s move to England in the summer of 2007, his fitness record has progressively deteriorated each season — he made 33 league appearances for Liverpool in his debut season in 2007–08, 24 in 2008–09, 22 in 2009–10 and although he managed a combined 37 league appearances for Liverpool and Chelsea in 2010–11, he looked a shadow of his former self.

In addition to the greater physical demands of English football, Torres’s body has had to cope with the rigours of international duty in three consecutive summers — Euro 2008, the 2009 Confederations Cup and the 2010 World Cup.

The frequency and severity of his injuries appear to have increased over time. In 2008–09, Torres suffered three hamstring injuries and an ankle injury. In 2009–10, he suffered a groin injury and his knee had to be operated on three times — the last of these operations on 18 April 2010 resulted in him missing the last three weeks of Liverpool’s disastrous 2009–10 season.

Unsurprisingly, at the World Cup in South Africa in the summer of 2010, Torres looked short of not only basic match fitness, but that extra yard of pace which had previously enabled him to slip effortlessly off the shoulder of the last defender to latch onto the through balls delivered by the likes of Gerrard, Alonso, Xavi, Iniesta and Silva. A miserable tournament for Torres individually — he was subbed off early in each of his four starts, he failed to score and he was dropped from the starting line-up for the semi-final against Germany and the final against the Netherlands — reached its denouement when he pulled up with a hamstring injury in the 121st minute of the final against the Netherlands, just 15 minutes after coming on as a late extra-time substitute.

It can be argued that, like other early starters before him, such as Michael Owen, Torres’s body, exposed to the constant rigours of senior football at a tender age, started breaking down commensurately early, namely, when he hit his mid-20s, precipitating a permanent, albeit steady, decline in performance through his late 20s as his body is shorn of the pace which characterised his earlier success.

The comparison with Owen proffers a cautionary tale. Both Torres and Owen made their senior club and international debuts as teenagers. Both function optimally as high-lying strikers who utilise their pace to make runs in behind the opposition’s defensive line. Both looked like world-beaters in their early 20s — Owen won the Ballon d’Or as a 22 year old in 2001 and, as a 24 year-old, Torres finished his first season in England in 2007–08 with 31 goals in all competitions, including 24 in the league to break Ruud van Nistelrooy’s record for most goals scored by a foreigner in their debut season in the English top flight, and was runner-up to Cristiano Ronaldo for the Football Writers’ Association Footballer of the Year award. Both started suffering more injuries as they hit their mid-20s.

However, on balance, this argument, although persuasive, is not conclusive as Torres suffered no serious injuries from 15 August 2010, the date of his return from the hamstring injury picked up in the World Cup Final, to 31 January 2011, the date of his transfer to Chelsea. Indeed, although Torres started his final half-season at Liverpool slowly as he struggled to regain match fitness and sharpness following the succession of injuries which plagued the second half of his 2009–10 season and his 2010 World Cup, he looked to be well on his way back to his best in his final three weeks at Liverpool, notching up 3 goals in 4 league games after Kenny Dalglish returned to the Anfield managerial throne on 9 January 2011.

2. Incompatible Tactics

In Torres’s first half-season at Chelsea under Carlo Ancelotti, the incompatibility between Torres’s strengths and Chelsea’s tactics, personnel and style of play seemed obvious, even to the untrained eye — a pacy, off the shoulder of the last defender centre-forward being forced to feed off scraps from a midfield unit lacking the personnel to consistently deliver quality balls in behind the opposition’s defence.

In England, there seems to be a perception, probably derived from his approximate £20m price tag (a club record for Liverpool at the time), that Torres arrived at Liverpool in the summer of 2007 fully-formed and fully-proven as a European-class centre-forward.

The reality is that he was anything but — certainly, his potential was not in question but, at Atletico Madrid, Torres never scored more than 20 La Liga goals a season and he was unfairly stuck with the tag of overrated wunderkind because, in a distinctly average side, he was constantly forced to drop deep to pick up the ball and play with his back to goal. That’s not his game.

Rafa Benitez, to his credit, realised this and played Torres high up the pitch with two of the best passers in Europe threading balls in behind the defence from central midfield. The result: Torres finally fulfilled his potential and became one of the best centre-forwards in the world.

Similarly, when he starred for Spain in the 2006 World Cup, Euro 2008 and the 2009 Confederations Cup, Torres received quality service from the likes of Alonso, Xavi, Iniesta, Fabregas and Silva and played up front either in partnership with David Villa, a second striker who dropped deep to collect the ball, run at defenders, create chances for Torres and give Torres the space and freedom to stay high on the shoulder of the last defender, or alone with support from a midfield five consisting of, at most, one player who would not be considered a world-class passer (Marcos Senna at the 2006 World Cup and Euro 2008, and Albert Riera in the 2009 Confederations Cup, both of whom are nonetheless technically adept passers).

We can deduce from the above analysis that Torres is a great striker but one who requires a peculiar tactical set-up to thrive — any system which gives him the freedom to play off the shoulder of the last defender and a midfield with the technical proficiency to supply quality balls on the carpet in behind the opposition’s defence.

The problem for both Chelsea and Torres when the latter arrived last season was that Chelsea did not have the personnel to execute such tactics. The Chelsea team was, understandably, set-up to suit Didier Drogba’s style of play. The Chelsea midfield played the ball to Drogba’s feet with his back to goal. Drogba then used his tremendous strength and power to turn the defender and bear down on goal himself, hold up the ball for the likes of Lampard, Essien and Ramires to get into the box or distribute it wide to Malouda or Anelka. It should come as no surprise then that Chelsea did not have central midfielders with the finesse to thread balls in behind the opposition’s defence — until now, that simply has not been the job required of a Chelsea midfielder.

Accordingly, for most of last season Torres, when he started for Chelsea, was forced to play up top in a 4-3-3 in front of a midfield three chosen from Lampard (an energetic box-to-box midfielder), Ramires (an energetic box-to-box midfielder), Essien (who functions either as a box-to-box midfielder or a holding midfielder) and Mikel (a pure stopper), but no genuine, creative midfield passer to supply the kind of balls from which Torres made his name. This problem was exacerbated when Chelsea started Torres alongside another out-and-out centre-forward in Drogba for the big games, either in a 4-3-3 (the Liverpool game at Stamford Bridge in early February, with a midfield three of Lampard, Essien and Mikel) or a 4-4-2 (the first leg of the Champions League quarter-final against Manchester United at Stamford Bridge in early April, with a midfield four of Lampard, Essien, Ramires and Zhirkov).

Whether or not the power to make such fundamental tactical decisions was actually within the ambit of Ancelotti’s political authority as manager is uncertain; what is certain is that the tactics chosen did not suit Torres’s style of play.

By contrast, this season, the incompatibility between Torres’s strengths and Chelsea’s tactics, personnel and style of play has been ameliorated by a change in tactics and manager and, crucially, the acquisitions of Juan Mata and Raul Meireles, two players with the technique and vision to play the passes in behind the defence on which Torres thrives. It was Mata who played the clever diagonal ball over the top for Torres’s opener against Swansea and it was Meireles who, in the 26th minute against Genk, made an intelligent run out to the right wing to curl in a teasing first-time cross (from a quick pass supplied by the deep-lying Anelka) for Torres to head home after making an astute horizontal run across Genk’s defensive line.

Indeed, Torres himself has, through his conduct, demonstrated both an awareness of the nature of the tactical problem which bedevilled him as well as a willingness to take active steps to ameliorate that problem. Firstly, Torres encouraged Mata to make the move to Stamford Bridge. Secondly, Torres’s remarks in a now infamous interview with the La Liga website in September 2011, although widely misconstrued in the English media as an attack on his Chelsea teammates for being “older” and “play[ing] very slow”, were in fact merely a cogent analysis of the unsuitable tactics which hampered his performances for Chelsea last season and the steps the club is taking this season to “redesign the team” (for example, acquiring Juan Mata who “is going to give another pace to the team”) and amend its tactics (that is, embrace André Villas-Boas’s ideas “about paced and vertical football”) to better suit his strengths.

This season Torres no longer has to play alongside Drogba in big games. New manager André Villas-Boas has bitten the bullet by adopting a general policy of picking one or the other in the starting XI, but rarely both. In the 13 competitive games Chelsea have played thus far this season, Drogba and Torres have only started together once — against Norwich at Stamford Bridge in late August, a match which Chelsea won 3-1, but neither Drogba nor Torres scored.

By contrast, last season, although Drogba and Torres only started together in four of Chelsea’s 19 competitive games following Torres’s January transfer, two of those four starts came in season-defining games — firstly, against Liverpool at Stamford Bridge in early February in Torres’s first game following his transfer and, secondly, against Manchester United at Stamford Bridge in April in the quarter-finals of the Champions League. Chelsea lost both games 1-0 and neither Drogba nor Torres scored. Indeed, to date, neither Drogba nor Torres have scored in a match in which they started together.

When Villas-Boas has started Torres, he has allowed him to operate as the tip of the spear like he did for Spain and Liverpool, with any additional forwards playing off him. In this respect, Chelsea’s tactical shape at Stamford Bridge against Genk is notable. Although, as promised in pre-season, Villas-Boas stuck to the 4-3-3 formation which served him so well in his one season at Porto, Villas-Boas implemented the system in a manner which complemented Torres’s style of play, deploying him high up the pitch as the lone out-and-out centre-forward, with the two other forwards, Malouda and Anelka, tucked in deeper to help create chances for Torres through the middle of the pitch and the two attacking full-backs, Cole and Bosingwa, pushed up high and wide to ping in crosses for Torres — Torres should have completed his hat-trick in the 71st minute from a cross whipped in by the overlapping Bosingwa.

Moreover, in central midfield, although nominally one of the two anchors alongside Oriol Romeu, Meireles had licence to roam further up the pitch (with Romeu staying deep to cover) where his technique and passing ability enabled Torres to do what he does best — play high and utilise his pace and movement to profit from well-weighted passes delivered in behind the opposition defence. As early as the 6th minute, Meireles picked up the ball just forward of the centre circle, took one touch and played an inch-perfect ball over the top of the Genk defence, only for Torres to hit the post with his left-footed finish. It was the kind of ball Alonso used to routinely serve up for Torres when both were dressed in Liverpool colours; against Genk, Meireles looked every inch an Alonso with marginally inferior passing but superior mobility.

Indeed, Villas-Boas’s interpretation of the 4-3-3 bears some resemblance to the Benitez 4-2-3-1 in which Torres flourished at Liverpool with Gerrard and two of Kuyt, Riera, Benayoun and Babel in the bank of three just behind him and a deep-lying playmaker (Alonso) and a pure stopper (Mascherano) in the bank of two in front of the defence.

With David Luiz regularly stepping up out of defence to exhibit the impressive range and accuracy of his passing, Torres had a glut of quality balls to feast on. Even Lampard, the consummate box-to-box goalscorer, contributed to the great feast in the 10th minute by taking one touch then quickly sliding a crisp, short diagonal ball in behind the Genk defence for Torres to run onto in trade mark fashion and side foot around the keeper. As Michael Cox observed, Lampard is successfully adapting his game to survive under Villas-Boas, passing much more from deep, “rather than simply breaking towards goal from a centre-left midfield position.”

3. A Guilty Mind

The third possible cause is psychological — more specifically, a young man’s awareness of his own moral culpability.

The whole world is familiar with the Liverpool fans’ Fernando Torres song which once reverberated around the great football cathedrals of Europe. What is less well-known are the historical origins of the opening line: “His armband proved he was a Red”. It refers to the historical fact that, even before his move to Liverpool in July 2007, Torres was photographed, whilst captaining Atletico Madrid in an away game against Real Sociedad in April 2007, wearing a captain’s armband with the words “We’ll Never Walk Alone” inscribed on the inside. Upon signing for Liverpool in July 2007, here is the explanation Torres himself gave for the armband (emphasis added): “A group of my mates and I are all Liverpool fans and we have been for some years. … [O]n my last birthday they gave me the present of the armband with it written on the underside.

From the moment he signed for Liverpool Football Club, Torres was not shy about broadcasting his knowledge and appreciation of the club’s illustrious history, telling the club’s official website just minutes after signing: “I’m aware of the history and how special this club is. The tragedies that have happened have made the bond between the fans and the club so strong.

During Torres’s three-and-a-half year stay at Anfield, he took every opportunity to not only reiterate this appreciation, but pledge his love of, and fealty to, the club and its fans.

In a January 2009 interview with The Daily Mail, Torres declared (emphases added):

Liverpool is a massive club in reputation, but as soon as I came here it felt like Atletico to me. … I had many offers in football, I had many big clubs to choose from, so I decided on something more than football.

The people here, the history, the way everybody comes together, I looked at that and I thought we have the chance to make this one of the greatest clubs in the world, again.

Now I feel Liverpool is my English club, the way Atletico is my Spanish club. I would not like to play for another English or Spanish club. This feeling is very important to me.

In October 2009, Torres told The Guardian (emphases added):

One of the reasons I chose to come to Liverpool was because of the mentality of the club. It’s a working club and a working city. I don’t know why but I feel like one of the people here.

It is so important for me to get my first club medal with Liverpool

Accordingly, it came as something of a surprise to hear Torres declare in a February 2011 press briefing following his transfer to Chelsea on 31 January 2011 (emphases added):

I was not a Liverpool fan or a Chelsea fan in Madrid. I was an Atletico fan. I still am. Maybe they’re the only badge I will kiss.

I see some players doing that [kissing the badge] when they join a club, but the romance in football has gone. It’s a different thing now. People [players] are coming and leaving. When you are joining a club you want to do the best for yourself and that club, and that’s all.

When asked in a November 2009 interview with The Telegraph whether he was at Anfield to stay, Torres replied: “Who knows. But for the next four years, yeah. Deffo.

For the avoidance of doubt, on 9 January 2011, Torres stated (emphasis added):

More than ever, we need to stick together. We must live in the present, from match to match.

We need to add more points, win matches and improve our standing in the table. That is our challenge and I demand the total help of our supporters in doing that.

My head is in Liverpool and on helping save our season. I am professional and I always fulfil my deals. I haven’t considered leaving, although in football that depends on the club.

However, less than three weeks later, he handed in a written transfer request and in a February 2011 press briefing following his transfer to Chelsea, Torres went so far as to say (emphases added):

I really wanted to leave Liverpool, so I told them straight. Everything was clear. At the end of the day, it’s about being fair and honest with everyone.

I explained my situation, my feelings, and was honest with everyone. I told everyone, face to face, my feelings and that I wanted to leave for Chelsea. They didn’t hear that in the press. They heard it from me. That was maybe 10 or 12 days before the window closed.

So, on or around 19 January 2011 (that is, approximately 12 days before the January transfer window closed), Torres told Liverpool that he “really wanted to leave”, despite publicly stating on 9 January 2011 that “I haven’t considered leaving” and “I am professional and I always fulfil my deals”.

Furthermore, in an interview with Marca in March 2011, Torres confessed (emphasis added): “[Leaving Liverpool] was a decision I had mulled over for a long time, even though it appeared to be taken very hastily. I had made up my mind a long time before. In the summer in which Xabi Alonso left [2009] I started to wonder.

It is difficult to reconcile this statement with what Torres said to The Telegraph in November 2009.

In the same March 2011 interview with Marca, Torres reiterated the assertions of honesty he made at his February 2011 press briefing (emphases added):

I wanted to be honest. If others haven’t been honest, that’s not my problem. Football is not a sport populated by honest people. You can’t tell the truth or be up front with people. It’s a business and no one is friends. I was honest. I know [the transfer] wasn’t [handled in] the best way but I was honest. If anyone used the press, it wasn’t me. I was straight and I have a clear conscience.

What then are we to make of all these inconsistent statements?

It is submitted that it is the sound of an intelligent but confused young man, who realises that he ought to be at the very peak of his professional career, striving and struggling to come to terms with a decision he made with the purpose of advancing his own career but with the full knowledge that it would not only hurt many innocent people who had shown him nothing but love and loyalty, but also breach promises and contradict statements he made to them.

In Torres’s repeated thinking-out-loud-style affirmations of his own personal honesty, one can detect a tone of plaintive moral self-justification. As Talleyrand said of Napoleon’s execution of the Duke d’Enghien: “It is worse than a crime; it is a mistake.”

In short, Torres’s behaviour bears all the hallmarks of a guilty mind; the deleterious effects of which it is impossible to ever underestimate.

However, time, not to mention an improvement in the suitability of one’s tactical environment and a commensurate improvement in one’s workplace performances, can heal such self-inflicted wounds.

The Answers

Returning to the two questions posed at the beginning of this article, it is submitted that the answers are, firstly, all three causes posited above — burn-out and injuries, incompatible tactics and a guilty conscience — contributed in varying degrees to Torres’s form slump, and since each of those causes has now been ameliorated, there is every reason to believe that Fernando Torres has finally got his mojo back.

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