Miguel Delaney: the trouble with Torres
14:18, 06 Apr 2011
One of Fernando Torres’s main problems at Chelsea has not been confidence, fitness or adjustment but rather that Carlo Ancelotti’s side simply don’t play the type of pass or game that the striker specialises in. In that sense, he's been wasted, writes Miguel Delaney
Chelsea, really, should know better than any other team in England how to get the most of Fernando Torres’s unique abilities. After all, the Stamford Bridge side were the first in the Premier League to suffer from them.
In fact, Torres’s Liverpool debut against Chelsea way back in August 2007 essentially provided a blueprint for how to get the best out the striker. Fifteen minutes into that game, Steven Gerrard pierced a hole in the away defence with a sublime 40-yard slide-rule pass. Such was the weight and pace of the ball that it stretched the Chelsea backline and allowed Torres to really maximise his fearsome acceleration. Tal Ben Haim was left for dust as the Spaniard simply rolled the ball into the corner of the net.
There are many reasons and opinions why we haven’t seen him do something similar for Chelsea yet. One is that he is just not fit. Rafa Benitez rushing him back last season and Spain subsequently overusing him at the World Cup has apparently left him jaded. The most extreme versions of that opinion even argue that all of his injury troubles have terminally affected his sharpness and acceleration.
Whatever of the physical toll, however, a mental hangover was going to be inevitable. Torres – regardless of his motivations – still had to endure the emotional wrench of leaving a club whose philosophy he had bought into. While overcoming that, then, he’s had to adjust to a new city and new surroundings. Worse, he also joined a club that were going through their own crisis of confidence at the time. None of that is exactly conducive to top form.
Arguably the biggest factor, however, is the exact shape and philosophy of the team he’s trying to fit into. Basically, it’s rare enough these days that you see Chelsea execute the kind of counter-attack that Liverpool did back on Torres’s debut.
Although his side can be devastating on the break and play some raking balls down the wings, Carlo Ancelotti has broadly favoured short-passing build-ups. You often see a few quick interchanges outside the box before a quick release. This was certainly evident in the seven-goal routs they racked up last season.
Despite Torres’s sleekness of touch when in flight, by contrast, he can be conspicuously club-footed when it comes to close-range build-up. That’s been evident throughout his international career with Spain, where he’s often looked slightly out of place. Luis Aragones finally realised the solution to this in the build-up to Euro 2008. He used Torres’s acceleration and direct running as decoys, getting him to stretch defences and give the rest of Spain’s artists more space to play.
Interestingly, Ancelotti alluded to this at the weekend.
“He likes to receive the ball at a certain point, so we have to improve this. Sometimes he moves well on the wrong side of the centre-back and the ball does not arrive.”
That caveat becomes even more significant when you break down Torres’s 65 league goals at Liverpool to examine the exact ‘type’ of moves he specialised in.
Although more than one of the following descriptions were evident in some goals, we’ve attempted to arrange them by the definition that most broadly applied:
|Type of goal
|Volley from a cross
|Run onto goalkeeper punt
|Finish from a corner
|Dribble then finish
|Latching onto loose ball
|Header from a cross
|Dispossessing a defender
|Simple finish from pass in the box
As the statistics illustrate, Torres is much more of a classic ‘poacher’ than he’s often given credit for. As many as 20 of his goals (31%) have come from headers or simple close-range finishes to moves. Nevertheless, the huge degree to which his game is based on speed is obvious. To all intents and purposes, a massive 46% (30 goals – those marked with a star above) of his 65 goals have come through his exploitation of open space. These involved getting to loose balls first, catching defenders out and – of course – running on to through-passes. There can be little surprise that the last is the most frequent type of goal he scored during his time at Anfield.
It helped, of course, that Liverpool were built to play this way and had numerous key figures capable of providing that kind of pass – above all, Xabi Alonso and Gerrard. The latter, for all his faults and frequent occasions that he blazed a ball into the stands, would generally hit one gem a game.
Chelsea, by contrast, don’t currently have that kind of architect. In that sense, Torres is a season too late. He would have benefitted from playing with Deco – who was well capable of threading through-balls – or, to a lesser extent, Michael Ballack. At the moment, Frank Lampard always occupies the attacking-midfield position that would offer this type of pass. Although he has many qualities, perception like that isn’t one of them. Instead, Lampard will often shoot where a true playmaker would look for the killer ball.
Given the Englishman's goal return, this isn’t a problem per se... unless you have a striker who is generally wasted if he doesn’t have that type of ball. And it’s why Ancelotti could be best served by again dropping Torres tonight. Until they buy a necessary playmaker or sufficiently develop a different approach, Chelsea are a more cohesive unit without the Spaniard.
Some, of course, will point to the supposed Indian sign he has over Nemanja Vidic as a reason why he should be picked tonight. This duel, however, has given rise to an awful lot of debate over the last two years. There are as many now claiming that Torres’s mastery of it is a complete myth as those who swear by it.
The truth, of course, is somewhere in between. When you look at the stats and actual performances, Vidic has broadly handled Torres quite well. The extremity of Liverpool’s 4-1 win over United in March 2009 however – as well as the nature of Torres’s equaliser – has forever exaggerated perceptions.
But it’s also worth pointing out that goal came about because Rafael Benitez specifically targeted the strengths in Torres’s game which Vidic was susceptible to. As the Liverpool manager said at the time (no doubt hoping other opponents would take note), “when they [United] don’t have the ball and you move it quickly and play behind their defenders you can beat them... We knew with his [Torres’s] movement, we could create problems for their defenders.” Although quite fast in general play, Vidic is slow on the turn.
All of that puts an important spin on Ancelotti’s assertion that Torres “likes to receive the ball at a certain point... on the wrong side of the centre-back.” Since that ball still “does not arrive” – in the Chelsea manager’s own words – it provides a compelling explanation for Torres’s troubles so far and why he should be left out tonight.
Then again, there’s no better time to accentuate the other elements of his game. It might be time for the true poacher in Torres to come alive again.
Miguel Delaney was football journalist for the defunct Sunday Tribune, for whom he covered Euro 2008, the 2010 World Cup and the last five Champions League campaigns. He is also the author of Stuttgart to Saipan: the players' stories
Disagree with Miguel? Tell him so at twitter.com/MDelaneyST