Amid all the controversy and hype surrounding Chelsea last week, one news story slipped significantly under the radar. One man in particular would have been extremely happy about that. In an interview with Spanish newspaper El Pais, Fernando Torres inferred that in many of Chelsea’s games last year, he did not care whether his new side won or lost – a perhaps admirable dose of honesty that would have no doubt infuriated the Chelsea fan base had their attentions not been diverted elsewhere. The piece was clearly designed to illustrate that Torres has turned a corner and is close to rediscovering the form that made him the most feared out-and-out striker in Europe no less than three years ago. However, Torres’ form is in many ways just as patchy as it was last season, and perhaps in this year more than any other, he is a luxury Chelsea cannot afford to carry.
Chelsea’s reliance on Torres this season is alarming. Last year Roberto Di Matteo could afford to indulge the Spaniard in games against weaker opposition whilst nominally chasing fourth spot; in the far more significant Champions’ League games, Didier Drogba was preferred. Whilst being linked with other striking options over the summer, Chelsea never pulled the trigger on bringing in a new striker to supplement their newly assembled riches in attacking midfield. Di Matteo seems unwilling to trust Daniel Sturridge in the number 9 role, and, regardless, the Englishman has been injured for much of the season. The next option is the talented, yet raw, Lucas Piazon, who, given Chelsea’s recent reputation for bringing through young players, could prove to be another bust.
Put simply, Torres will have to start every important game for Chelsea until the January transfer window opens. Whilst admittedly he is scoring goals on a semi-regular basis (he has five goals in all competitions so far), his rate of return on chances is extremely poor. In games where Chelsea can afford to squander opportunities, such as at home to Norwich or away at a depleted Spurs, his misses are not as glaring as they would be in a Champions’ League quarter final, or an away game at either of the Manchester sides. The Norwich game was a perfect microcosm of Torres’s season so far – dispatch one of three or four excellent chances and, in doing so, temporarily silence the critics. Whilst Chelsea are creating so many openings, this does not appear to be a problem, but there will be games in the near future when they need him to be a clinical finisher he once was. At present, he does not look capable of recapturing that level of play.
Interestingly, this does not seem to be a simple case of good-player-gone-bad. Torres still has a natural finishing ability that he has displayed on occasion this season. He is still one of the best instinctive strikers around. You need only look at his goals against Newcastle, Arsenal, and Norwich this season to see that his knack of adjusting his body shape and technique in order to engineer a finishing chance is undiminished. The problems start to appear when Torres is afforded any kind of time or space in front of goal. The fact that he may or may not have lost a yard of pace has been well documented: goals such as the one he scored so memorably on his debut against Chelsea for Liverpool now appear to be beyond him. However, of far greater concern is his inability to make good decisions when played into space, or find the correct finish when through against the goalkeeper – a position he has found himself in numerous times this season because of the quality of service he is so lucky to receive. He has a tendency to dally with the ball at feet, unable or unwilling to push it ahead of him with the correct weight to generate a finishing opportunity. When played through on goal, he tends to side-foot his attempts directly underneath the goalkeeper, lacking the conviction to lift his shots or simply sidestep his opponent.
The good news for Chelsea is that these issues can be resolved. His apparent lack of pace should not be of too grave a concern, provided Oscar, Hazard, and Mata continue to play at the level they have reached this past month. His issues still appear to be mental; it is as if he has lost some idea of how to win in one-on-one situations. It is also worth considering that Chelsea have no real need to stick with Torres, beyond the obvious embarrassment of shelving a £50 million player. Abramovich, clearly re-energised by the Champions’ League win, has shown he is willing to spend big to deliver more trophies. If Torres cannot extricate himself from his striker’s block within the next month or two, Chelsea would be fools not to look elsewhere.
All this is of such great significance simply because the Londoners have a huge opportunity to be extremely successful this season. Domestic honours are a real possibility, with United looking fragile in defence and midfield, and City yet to find any kind of rhythm, especially on the road. If Chelsea decide not to invest in an alternative option, they are placing all their hopes on Torres performing on the biggest stage once more.
Richard Montague (Premier League Analyst)
Follow me @FRfootballRich