The arrival of Rafa Benitez at Stamford Bridge as interim manager until the end of the season has been seen by many observers as any opportunity for the club to finally start seeing the best of striker Fernando Torres, but is that a realistic expectation?
It’s fair to say that the appointment of Benitez as Roberto Di Matteo’s replacement has been met with a less than positive reaction from the club’s fans, but one of the rays of sunlight behind his short spell at the club is the argument that he possesses the secret to unlock the struggling Spaniard’s potential at Stamford Bridge.
The main problem that I have with this theory is that it approaches getting the best out of Torres as some sort of exact science. Carlo Ancelotti, Andre Villas-Boas and Di Matteo all struggled to integrate him successfully into the Chelsea side. A Roman Abramovich signing in every sense of the word, foisted upon the manager just as much as Andriy Shevchenko was with Jose Mourinho, it always looked on the face of it at least an uneasy relationship.
The side had an ingrained style of play tailor-made for the bustling stylings of Didier Drogba, but a deliberate and concerted attempt to move away from that system has been made this season by Di Matteo, with a triumvirate of creative talents placed in behind the £50m front-man, with Juan Mata, Eden Hazard and Oscar all shining at various points in the campaign so far.
A return of four goals in 13 league games and seven in 21 across all competitions is an improvement on a record which rendered just 12 goals in 67 appearances in the preceding 18 months at the club. Nevertheless, he remains a frustratingly inconsistent player to watch, even with a system and style catered to try and get the best out of him.
Alan Hansen wrote in his Telegraph column this week: “The Torres who was exceptional in his first 18 months at Anfield has gone and he is not coming back. Torres’s main weapon has gone, and it does not matter which manager you put in charge. Since suffering a knee injury a year before he joined Chelsea, he has never had the same speed and it has had a debilitating impact on the rest of his game. It is not a mental problem with Torres. It never has been. It is a physical one. Coping with the loss of such pace is the hardest adjustment for any player. Without that speed, what are you left with?”
It’s hard to argue with that and the first signs that the Torres which tore the Premier League apart in his first three season was on his way out was visible in his last campaign at Anfield, where he struck just nine goals in 26 games – a record which certainly stands up when compared to his time at Chelsea, but is a pale reflection of his previous Liverpool form.
Shorn of that pace which used to set him apart and worry defenders, he simply isn’t as dangerous anymore and on numerous occasions against Manchester City at the weekend, when put ahead of the back four, he was comfortably outpaced by Vincent Kompany then ushered off the ball. It couldn’t just be as simple as he used to be good and now he isn’t, could it?
Benitez gave an insight earlier last week on the task ahead that faces him: “My job now is to find out why he is not scoring as many goals as he was at Liverpool. I have my ideas. I was talking with him. With the arm on the shoulder, normally you are in the middle of the table. When you have to push the player, that is when you can compete for titles. With Fernando you have to put your arm around the shoulder and push him.”
This unique mindset only serves to show what a complex character Torres is and why previous managers have failed to return him to his best. At 28 years of age, he should be entering his peak years, but a return to Spain, possibly as a makeweight in a deal to bring Atletico Madrid striker Falcao to the club beckons.
Benitez has tried to claim that the service into Torres need to of a better quality, stating after the drab draw against City: “You could see he was trying very hard, but I think the team has to help Fernando and create more chances, and he will score goals. You cannot expect a striker scoring just on his own, so we have to create more and better chances for him with the players we have.”
The difficult proposition the 52-year-old manager faces, though, is that the Torres he knew and the one before him today are two very different players; he’s become better at holding the ball up and bringing others into play, while obviously willing to take less risks with runs in behind the back four due to his lack of acceleration and inability to shake off his marker like he could so easily in the past.
Torres scored a highly impressive 56 goals in 79 games under Benitez at Anfield, yet there can be little proof to suggest that he’s even capable of going close to that sort of form at Chelsea between now and the end of the season. Like many strikers who rely on pace, Michael Owen standing out as another prime example, once that attribute is on the wane, they look a shadow of their former self and it’s impossible to halt the decline, let alone reverse it.
Benitez is under significant pressure to turn Torres’ fortunes around at the club which paid such a significant fee for his service back in 2011, not to mention the hostile atmosphere he faces from the home fans seemingly unwilling to give their new boss a chance. The striker clearly needs to be treated as a special case, and to pretend that he’s not is misplaced at best, but whether he remains up to the task of filling Drogba’s shoes and spearheading a title-winning attack is a tough one to quantify. There is no secret to unlocking Torres’ potential and for those placing the burden squarely onto Benitez’s shoulders on this issue, they may be setting themselves up for yet another false dawn.
You can follow me on Twitter: