Fernando Torres has the backing of his manager at Chelsea but still the goals are not coming. Can he restore past glories? Louise Taylor writes…
Fernando Torres looked embarrassed as he stood, smiling wanly, on the roof of a high-rise Kowloon carpark. Doing his bit to promote Chelsea’s Asian merchandising operation during the club’s pre-season tour, the £50m striker was modelling a personalised version of the club’s latest replica shirt design. The top in question had been emblazoned with the word “Triumph”. Writ large in Cantonese and English it was intended to capture the essence of Roman Abramovich’s ultimate trophy signing but instead it prompted barely concealed sniggers.
Standing alongside the Spaniard two months ago, Frank Lampard posed in a shirt adorned by “Happiness” and Petr Cech paraded the message “Champion”, but neither looked remotely as out of place as the man who has now scored only once in 23 games since swapping Liverpool for Chelsea last January.
Halted rudely in his tracks by, first, the frailties of his right knee and, later, a change of tactical and physical landscape, Torres is no longer the goalscoring juggernaut who once stalked the nightmares of Manchester United’s Nemanja Vidic. The overriding suspicion is that the past 18 months have been played out against a soundtrack dominated increasingly by initially alien, now horribly familiar, doubting voices inside the Spain striker’s head.
It would be no surprise were they to tell Torres that, in paying so much money for him last January, Chelsea were buying the old El Niño. Unfortunately the original forward who before a second, albeit ostensibly successful, meniscus repair in April 2010 simply could not stop scoring appears to have gone into hibernation.
As he contemplates the damning statistic that even Andriy Shevchenko had struck six times by the same stage of his Chelsea career, Torres probably struggles to reconcile his new persona with an alter ego who not only became the fastest player to hit 50 goals for Liverpool but registered Spain’s winning goal in Euro 2008.
These days, the elemental force whose name once adorned more Premier League replica shirts sold worldwide than any other finds himself no longer an automatic choice for club or country. Along the way a softly spoken character regarded as unusually “nice” for a star striker seems to speak more quietly than ever as he strives to draw reassurance from the old adage about form being temporary but class permanent.
“I’m 27, I don’t forget how to score goals,” said Torres on that Kowloon rooftop. “I willscore again.”
If it would be unwise to bet against him, a subtle yet significant loss of pace almost certainly occasioned by that knee surgery is merely exacerbated by assorted attendant problems. Most pressingly, Chelsea’s game fails to provide the sort of frequent Steven Gerrard-esque through balls and low crosses that Torres so revelled in racing on to at Anfield, but there also remains the question of whether he is entirely happy in his new habitat.
Behind the imposing 6ft stature, the tattoos and the trendy, carefully coloured hair, Torres is far from an Identikit footballer. Described as surprisingly timid and sensitive off the field, he enjoys a homely life with his wife Olalla – they have been together since their mid-teens – and two young children.
Tellingly, the boy known for walking his dogs in public parks and displaying an almost anorakish enthusiasm for researching Liverpool’s history is described as being as on a “very different” off-field wavelength to figures such as Ashley Cole, John Terry and Didier Drogba.
André Villas-Boas, however, is anything but your typical football manager and unlikely to be perturbed by such perceived nonconformity. But what must worry Abramovich’s latest appointee is the dilemma of whether to start Torres at Manchester United on Sunday or, as happened last week at Sunderland, park his expensive bottom on the bench. After all, Carlo Ancelotti’s selection of El Niño in both legs of Chelsea’s Champions League quarter-final defeat against United last spring played an integral part in his predecessor’s Stamford Bridge undoing.
Ideally, Villas-Boas hopes to eventually reassure Abramovich that Torres is not another Shevchenko. To do so the Portuguese must determine whether the goal drought stems from the striker’s knee, his hamstrings, his mind, cumulative fatigue or something altogether more tactical.
A young manager offered an entry into football by Sir Bobby Robson could reflect on how the late Newcastle United manager revived Alan Shearer’s career after, admittedly more serious, knee injuries had taken the edge off his hallmark pace and power. Robson advised Shearer precisely how he could reinvent his game courtesy of radically rethinking and varying his off-the-ball movement and playing much more on the half-turn to confound defenders.
A change of mind-set may also be desirable. Roberto Forzoni, a performance psychologist specialising in helping footballers, suggests strikers are particularly vulnerable to loss of form. “In general, footballers are the psychologically strongest performers I’ve worked with,” Forzoni says. “However, in two positions where lack of form is highlighted the most, goalkeepers and strikers, they can benefit from an experienced psychologist’s input.
“First the player needs to acknowledge there is an issue and must want to do everything he can to try to improve the situation; this, incredibly, is not always the case, particularly with millionaire performers.
“He may prefer playing with a particular wide player or midfielder or he may prefer a particular system. Off the field he may wish to work on shooting practice in a specific way or review videos of previous performance accomplishments.”
Visualising, and consequently reliving, past achievements has been seen as a means of provoking individual renaissances ever since the 1970s when Gerd Müller, the West Germany and Bayern Munich striker, popularised such techniques by openly discussing his use of visualisation to end occasional goal droughts.
Not that Villas-Boas can ignore a seemingly uncomfortable wider context. Certainly Torres’s recent comments about the impediments placed on his game by the advanced age and “slowness” of a Chelsea side still to properly learn about playing “vertically” suggest his problems may not be purely personal.
Torres may adapt to suit Chelsea, but Chelsea must also change to play to Torres’s strengths. “Chelsea are used to playing into Drogba’s body, not behind the defenders and into the space where Fernando wants the ball,” says the former Stamford Bridge midfielder Yossi Benayoun.
Juan Mata’s playmaking arrival may yet recalibrate things in gloriously thrilling fashion, but Torres’s physical condition is the subject people are reluctant to raise.
Ramon Cugat is Iberia’s answer to Richard Steadman, the surgeon of choice for many of Spain’s crocked footballers. During 2009-10 Torres had begun catching regular flights to Cugat’s Clinica Quirón in Barcelona for treatment on the sort of groin and hamstring complaints that blemished Michael Owen’s explosively pacey Liverpool pomp.
Knees, though, are Cugat’s speciality and he first operated on Torres’s right one in January 2010. Three months later it became clear that this initial meniscus repair had failed and required repetition. Although such operations are generally routine and the injuries prompting them rarely career-threatening,strikers as reliant on a coruscating change of pace as Torres regard any knee trouble as a potential trapdoor to despair.
Perhaps the effects of playing season in, season out for first Atlético Madrid and then Liverpool combined with summers spent representing Spain, were catching up with him. Or, maybe, Cugat had warned of future arthritis and joint replacements because following one of those Barcelona trips the striker turned introspective. “I can’t imagine what state I’ll be in within five or six years if I continue to play in England,” he said. “It could easily give me problems when I stop. The physical demands are superior to all other countries.”
Although Torres recovered from his second surgery in time to board a South Africa-bound plane that summer, a predator arguably less suited to Spanish tiki‑taka than more visceral Premier League combat played merely a peripheral part in his country’s World Cup glory. He then returned to Anfield to find Roy Hodgson had replaced Rafael Benítez as manager.
Starved of stellar service as Liverpool struggled, the most recognisable and marketable striker in England was seen exhibiting some hitherto unusual, despairing and, sometimes, suspiciously petulant, body language.
Hodgson bears no grudges. “Fernando is an outstanding player and a very good person,” West Bromwich Albion’s manager says. “Sometimes strikers go through periods when everything they touch turns the opposite to gold. Pressures build up due to expectations from outside and you have to be very strong to deal with it.
“From what I’ve seen this season it seems Fernando is doing the things Chelsea want him to do. He’s working very hard. I’d certainly back him to succeed because he’s a very good professional. I’ve got nothing but good to say about him.”
Shevchenko also believes Torres will come good at Chelsea. “When a club has paid a lot of money for you, that obviously brings its own pressures but you just have to go out and do your best on the pitch and I know Torres does that,” the Dynamo Kyiv striker said. “Great strikers don’t suddenly forget how to score goals … The goals will come for him.”
The positive sentiments are echoed by most Chelsea fans – whatever faults Torres has been accused of lack of effort is not one – and few who witnessed the two assists against Bayer Leverkusen would doubt his contribution to team play. But goals are what £50m strikers must expect to be judged on and whether fitness, tactics or his mental state are the problem, Villas‑Boas must find a way to produce them, and fast.