I was watching Sunday Supplement, waiting for some more moments of comic genius, when something really strange happened. Henry Winter was in a heated debate with Shaun Custis about the merits or otherwise of persevering with Fernando Torres in the Chelsea team, and I found myself taking Custis’s side.
Winter was adamant that Torres should remain in the team, to re-find his form, which Winter assumed was bound to return, citing the tired old cliché that if only his scissor kick onto the bar against Sunderland had gone in, he would then have gone on a run of goals. Yes, one goal opens the floodgates, it’s a scientific fact, and it never fails to happen.
Custis disagreed. And his reasoning was surely the more logical of the two. He said: “You get to the point where you think this is just not working”, mentioning that Sturridge should have run in the middle of the attack, suggesting that you could at least move Torres out wide, if he must be played.
Winter: “Needs someone to put arm around him and tell him he is loved.” Having agreed that mentally he was gone, his confidence shot to pieces, he argued that putting on the bench wouldn’t solve matters. But then playing him isn’t either surely? And Winter pointing out that he used tob e brilliant and has “won finals for Spain” is not really of much use now is it?
Steve Cording in the Evening Standard this week agreed with Winter in as much as he defended the seemingly starling goal scoring stats, pointing out that the stats cover the number of times he hasn’t been allowed 90 minutes on the pitch, his treatment under Ancelotti, and a team formation that isn’t suited to him. He added:
“Chelsea go away this week for five days warm-weather training in Majorca. It is the perfect opportunity for the manager to make his striker feel wanted again. Not just an arm around the shoulder but the man-management that tells Torres he is important and not a player who will be subbed as soon as things go awry.”
I can’t say I agree to be honest. Torres has had ample chance to re-find his form, previous occasional goals have not opened the floodgates, and what’s more, he is beginning to handicap the team. Maybe there is a point to be made on tactics – but the Chelsea manager cannot revolve his tactics around one misfiring striker, so it may be the player rather than the system that will have to be sacrificed. But as the other Sunday Supplement guest Martin Lipton screeched into the cameras, he has played under two different managers and four different tactical set-ups, and nothing seems to be working.
Meanwhile, commentators are desperate for him to succeed. I can see why, in a way. Being your average bitter, prejudiced football fan, I would normally take great delight in seeing a rival’s big-money signing flop so spectacularly. But I don’t really. It is painful to see a £50m player that only a couple of years ago was one of the world’s elite strikers so utterly stripped of his power, of his talent, a man so devoid of confidence you pray for a goal just to give the man a break, to ease the pain not only for him, but for everyone watching.
And despite what I have said, I can see why Villas- Boas perseveres with him. It’s hard to ditch a £50m signing. He pretty much needs him to re-find his form – the consequences of him not are too shocking to contemplate. And whilst the “one goal will change everything” theory is rubbish, each single goal will chip away at the frailties he now possesses.
“Strikers live off goals,” Villas-Boas said recently. “Their confidence builds up and the movement improves. You can’t say that he is not trying. He is making the right movements, he is present in the box. One day I think it will go for him.”
But it is now 919 minutes since he scored a goal for club or country – and that was back in October against Genk. He has not scored for 11 consecutive Premier League matches – not surprisingly the worst barren run of his career.
To a lesser extent, this scenario is also playing out at a couple of other clubs. One obvious example is Andy Carroll, Liverpool’s replacement for Torres, a £35m purchase who looks like a hung-over Sunday league player, another player whose value has more than halved in under a year. Over at Manchester City, £27m Edin Dzeko has also had a small crisis of confidence, failing to find the net for a relatively long period. He can rest more easily though having grabbed a couple of goals in the last fortnight, and having 14 goals for the season. The pressure on him isn’t quite the same, nor the inability to hit the target.
But should Chelsea persevere, can they afford this pampering of their biggest ever signing? So far, disaster has been averted – at least the disaster that is not qualifying for the Champions League, the biggest disaster of all for those teams looking to consistently challenge for titles. With 16 games to go, Chelsea are 13 points behind Manchester City. The title challenge has gone – they can’t overhaul City, United and Spurs. They are 5 points clear of 5th place, but they have the heavyweights of Arsenal and Liverpool behind them, both of whom are capable of putting together a run of results. They are still in the FA Cup, and the Champions League. Their season can still be a successful one. The problem is that they average one goal a game over the past seven league games, which if they are to pick up points puts an awful lot of pressure on the defence to keep clean sheets. They need to score more goals (in the league at least), so logic suggests the striker with 9 league goals has more merits than the striker with 2. If current form continues, Andres Villas-Boas has got some difficult decisions ahead. Few other strikers would get such a chance like tihs – is it simply because of his price-tag, and a case of pining for the great player we all used to know?
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