Is this Chelsea saga simply a lesson in poor management?
Fernando Torres has taken a lot of flack this year. Despite having his best goal record to date since moving to Stamford Bridge, with 15 goals in 42 appearances in all competitions this season, the lacklustre Spaniard is still a figure of hate for the Chelsea faithful. So perhaps it was rather refreshing to see someone from the Blues camp actually stick up for the guy.
Yossi Benayoun, who was a team-mate of the forward during his Liverpool days, the most successful spell in his career in which he netted 65 times in 105 league appearances, has openly criticised his current club, Chelsea, for the manner in which they handled their record signing, and how they have essentially ruined a world class footballer.
Of course, Torres has done little to win over the fans. Although he’s scored important goals, especially last year in the Champions League, there is little doubt that the forward is still a shadow of his former self and is nowhere near to playing his best football. Furthermore, he’s become the scapegoat in many ways for the sacking of Roberto Di Matteo, and arguably worse, the appointment of Rafa Benitez – not to mention the club’s poor form over the past few seasons.
But the Torres saga was well underway before the recent changing of the guard at Stamford Bridge. To understand what really went wrong, the story must be examined from start. It should be remembered that Chelsea bought the striker amid a slight dip in form. He’d just recovered from a knee injury that had cut his 2009/2010 season short, and although he featured for Spain in the World Cup that summer, the former Liverpool man struggled to play at his best during the tournament.
So perhaps our first lesson in mismanagement comes there. Buying a player who’s out of form usually means a reduced price-tag, but instead Torres’s transfer in 2011 broke all English records and was the sixth highest fee ever paid for a professional footballer. The weight on his shoulders at the time must have been enormous; a new club, with a new manager and new fans to impress, with little time to find his feet again after a serious injury – which has arguably taken a yard of pace permanently out of the Spaniard’s game.
The pressure clearly told, with Torres taking over 900 minutes of pitch time to record his first goal for his new team. It didn’t help that the only solution seen to be viable to please the owner, the fans and get the Spaniard to play better was to throw him into every game, with little respite to acclimatise himself or adapt to Chelsea’s style of play. Furthermore, being a January transfer, Torres wasn’t given the usual pre-season period to familiarise himself with his new club. Yossi Benayoun has pointed to this era in Torres’s Chelsea career as being the start of the problems: ‘He did not get the confidence when he came in, and with £50m above his head it is not easy for any player. The situation from the beginning was badly managed with him.’
During the next season, things wouldn’t get much easier for Torres, despite at the end of the year being part of a team that lifted the FA Cup and the Champions League winners trophy. Andre Villas-Boas was charged with the task set by Abramovich to revamp a team that was coming to the end of its life-cycle, despite finishing second place in the league the season previous. The 28-year-old forward was expected to take the reigns from Didier Drogba and Nicolas Anelka in terms of goal scoring and leading the line, who were being fazed out against the wishes of the fans – pretty big shoes to fill for a man who had only netted a single goal in his Chelsea career at that time. It seemed, at least to outsiders to the club, that the whole team was beginning to be reshaped around a player who was yet to play well, or even command a place in the Starting XI.
Chelsea managers quickly come and go these days, and it wasn’t soon before AVB was relieved of his post, to be replaced by Di Matteo. But by this time, Torres had lost his place in the team and was playing second fiddle, at least in Chelsea’s bigger games, to Didier Drogba, a man who he was essentially supposed to be replacing.
Problems between the two forwards were clear to see in their body language. Although little and large appeared to be the perfect partnership on paper, in reality both were poorly suited to playing with each other. Drogba may be strong and tall, but he is essentially not a target man. His main concern whilst in a Chelsea shirt has not been lay-offs, knock downs and holding up the ball for another player to feed off him, but rather to use his size, strength, pace and power to score goals, and the more single-handed Drogba’s goals were, the better. Similarly, Fernando Torres’s goals, whilst at Liverpool, where usually made by his own doing – picking up the ball and running with it, turning defenders and getting enough space to have an effort on goal.
So with the dream farewell to the Ivorian international in the summer following his Champions League final heroics – a game in which Torres has stated was the worst of his life for his lack of pivotal role, despite scoring the late dramatic winner against Barcelona in the Semi-Finals – this season appeared to be the Torres’s chance to shine. He could justifiably have a team moulded around him, and did not have the big personalities to contend with in the dressing room.
But unfortunately for the Spain international the changes appear to have come too late, and if anything, the added responsibility of having a whole team geared towards his abilities has further hindered his confidence, which was already in tatters from the season previous, something he would admit to in October last year: “I had team-mates who didn’t care if the team won or lost because they were not playing. I never wanted to be like that. But one day I discovered that I was like them; that it didn’t matter if we won or lost if I was not playing. I wasn’t part of the group. I discovered that I was not happy because I had stopped being what I had always wanted to be. In the dressing room, you can never lose that group concept.”
Perhaps blaming the managers is a bit harsh. No Chelsea manager actually wanted him, he was brought in on Roman Abramovich’s wishes and has since been inherited by the last three Blues bosses. Furthermore, Torres is a professional, who represents a financial investment in terms of transfer fees and wages, and if he couldn’t handle that pressure, he shouldn’t have left Anfield in 2011.
But now it’s reached a point where every lapse run, poor touch or wasteful shot is highly scrutinised. Additionally, he’s held at fault by fans for the majority of Chelsea’s failings, whether his role is significant or not, and he’s viewed as Roman Abramovich’s pet, kept at the club and prioritised over the emotions of the fans out of the owner’s selfishness and ignorance.
I feel Torres’s time at Chelsea is all but over. Should he prove to have another failed season this year, Abramovich will run out of patience with him. But what can we learn from one of football’s biggest ever transfer disasters? Well, clearly there was not enough thought put into the process from the start. How would Torres fit into a team built around a strong and physical style of play, when he’s such a technical striker? Furthermore, the sheer size of the transfer fee alone has been a constant weight on the Chelsea forward’s shoulders. Will he ever return to past glories? I doubt it. But perhaps when we look back, we should not view the Torres saga as being one man who lost his form and stopped caring, but perhaps a club, an owner, and a number of managers, who made the striker’s job at a difficult time even more difficult, and thus he could never recover.