Celebrating his 34th birthday today, Fernando Torres takes up an incredibly unique place in Chelsea’s history – immortalised for his role in clinching the greatest success of the Roman Abramovich era, the 2012 Champions League title, yet otherwise deemed the costliest of transfer flops.
Only last summer was he surpassed as the club’s record signing by Alvaro Morata, but the striker’s Chelsea career only ever produced 45 goals in 182 games as he endured one of the most incredible individual declines ever witnessed in the Premier League. So, how can what seemed an almost inexplicable career downturn at the time be explained now?
In truth, ‘flop’ feels like the wrong term to use in this instance. Back in January 2011, £50million was an unprecedented sum for Chelsea and the Premier League but a fair price for Torres, a European Championship and World Cup-winning striker with a Premier League return of 65 goals in 102 appearances at the age of 26.
But as the statistics show, the Torres who turned up at Stamford Bridge was almost incomparable to the one that arrived at Anfield from Atletico Madrid three-and-a-half years earlier, the one that had claimed spots in the PFA Team of the Year in 2007/08 and 2008/09, that had come third in the 2008 Ballon d’Or after claiming the Man of the Match award in the Euro 2008 final and that had bagged 22 goals across all competitions, including a league return of 18 in 22, during his final full season on Merseyside.
What Chelsea got wasn’t so much a pale imitation, a ghost of Torres’ former self or a world-class striker suddenly entering decline. It closer resembled the plot to Michael Jordan’s cult classic Space Jam, when tiny aliens under the order of Danny DeVito use a fake basketball to drain the ability of five of the biggest NBA stars, to the extent that greats like Muggsy Bogues, Larry Johnson and Charles Barkley struggled to run in straight lines, let alone catch a ball or throw it into the net.
Perhaps that’s a tad hyperbolic, but the statistics speak for themselves. In three-and-a-half seasons, Torres scored just 20 Premier League goals for Chelsea, never more than eight in a single campaign, and 48 overall – costing the Blues over £1million per strike without even including wages. In comparison to his prolific tenure at Liverpool, the 110-cap Spaniard’s minutes-per-goal ratio rose by over 100 minutes, whilst 40 more appearances brought 33 less goals and perhaps most pivotally for an expected talisman striker, 16 less game-winning goals. For Chelsea, Torres produced those at a rate of just one per 15 appearances.
Detailing the factors behind Torres’ sudden demise – he went from scoring nine goals during his last six months at Liverpool to just one during his first six months at Chelsea – remains a contentious debate. The move to Stamford Bridge did coincide with his least prolific start to the season in English football and a series of injury problems that saw the Spaniard fail to make more than 30 Premier League appearances during his final two full seasons at Anfield. Coupled with a mid-season move, in a post-World Cup campaign, the timing of Torres’ switch was far from ideal.
There’s also the question of whether Chelsea’s philosophy suited Torres’ style of play. The Spaniard could be powerful and aggressive but he has always been a technical talent first. The Blues, however, relied on immense physicality and playing the percentages; flinging high passes into dangerous areas for Didier Drogba to fight for, or capitalising on loose second balls with Frank Lampard’s trademark runs from midfield, rather than delicate passes into feet. Torres just wasn’t that kind of player and Drogba’s presence created an uneasy relationship – the Chelsea icon inevitably viewed the former Liverpool man as a challenger he needed to see off.
Many of those were probably short-term factors. Torres overcame his injury problems to make 113 appearances over the first two full seasons of his Chelsea career, more than he’d ever managed in the same space of time at Liverpool, Drogba left for Shanghai 18 months after the Spain international’s arrival and Chelsea’s game changed significantly under Andre Villas-Boas and Roberto di Matteo, focusing on technical talents to play behind Torres such as Juan Mata and Oscar. In fact, in 2013, Chelsea even controversially appointed the manager who’d helped make Torres such a success at Liverpool – infamous interim manager Rafa Benitez.
Yet, by the time those issues were resolved, the psychological damage had already been done, proving irreversible. Torres’ poor first 18 months at Chelsea had created a stigmatism that he could never shake off; whereas any chance to score was once met with encouraging, expectant roars by Liverpool supporters, Chelsea fans had become increasingly less optimistic and almost feared the site of Torres honing in on goal. The expectation had become Torres fluffing his lines, justified by the sheer incredible number of open goals one of the best players in world football just a few years prior somehow failed to convert.
But that in itself was proof of Torres’ problems being almost purely psychological. Even amid the widely-held belief of a corroding knee waning his powers, Torres always possessed the quality and guile to consistently reach double figures in the Premier League – in fact, he probably would have in all of his seasons for Chelsea if those open goals and shock misses weren’t spooned at all kinds of unsavoury angles – and it certainly wasn’t a question of attitude. Jose Mourinho painted him as a model professional, praising his hard work, at the end of their year together in west London.
“He’s a good professional. He works hard for the team, he brings positive things to the team. Obviously, we want him to score more goals. Obviously, he wants to score more goals. It’s not just me that wants. People that give everything they have you never can blame and you never can complain. When he’s on the pitch he tries to do his best. Obviously we want more. Obviously. He’s the first one that wants more, but he’s the kind of player I respect, he deserves to be respected and there’s nothing more you can say about it.”
For a striker who had scored with remarkable regularity at top flight level since his teenage years with Atletico, Torres’ inability to overcome the erroneous first few years of his Chelsea career was perhaps because he’d, quite simply, never been confronted with that significant a downturn of form before. The longest dry spell of his career before moving to Stamford Bridge was just ten games; but his Blues tenure started by going goal-less in his first 13 outings – 14 including an appearance for Spain. Torres was clearly blessed with all the talent in the world, but perhaps not the temperament to keep confidence in his own abilities.
That really showed midway through his time at Chelsea, when Torres began to change his game. He’d not only come to terms with the idea of him no longer being a prolific front-man but most detrimentally, seemingly accepted it – changing his style from a goal-scoring striker to the link-man between the attack and the midfield.
He started to play with his back to goal and focused on feeding in others rather than taking the initiative to the opposing defence. How drastic that change was is evident through Torres’ impressive tally of assists for Chelsea, 20 more than he produced for Liverpool. Perhaps that transformation was inevitable after such disappointment – it was increasingly evident Chelsea were no longer trying to build a team around him – but it’s also what changed the Spaniard’s struggles from being a matter of mindset to something far more intrinsic, and therefore far harder to reverse.
But Torres’ Chelsea tenure wasn’t exactly heartache from start to finish. Every now and then, there were games when the old Torres miraculously returned, harrying past defenders, peppering the goalkeeper with shots from all angles and occasionally, even managing to find the net.
All proved to be false dawns, but when Chelsea reached their lowest point of the Roman Abramovich era (something many may argue was a consequence of the investment in Torres backfiring so spectacularly) it was Torres who dragged them out of it, firing them to Europa League glory in 2012/13 with nine goals in the competition. That guaranteed Champions League football and brought Mourinho back to Stamford Bridge, where he went on to lift his third and Chelsea’s fourth Premier League title.
The season previous, Torres played a pivotal role in Chelsea claiming Europe’s top prize as well, scoring a sensational solo goal in the semi-finals of the Champions League against Barcelona immortalised by Gary Neville’s famous goal-gasm. He came on in a substitute in the final too, but Torres has since admitted it wasn’t an enjoyable occasion for him, saying he ‘felt lost’ at the end of a season that had seen him score just 11 goals in 49 appearances.
“Nothing would beat winning the Champions League with Atletico. I won it with Chelsea, but I was not in a good place. I did not feel I was being treated well at the time — I felt lost. I don’t want to talk about those moments. My career is going so well at the moment, and I feel so at home and full of confidence that I do not want to relive those days.”
A year after Torres’ defining role in Chelsea’s Europa League triumph, his time at the club came to an end; a torrid six months with AC Milan, scoring just once and making only ten appearances, was followed by a return to Atletico Madrid. Although his boyhood club have never quite brought the old Torres back, the Spaniard at least looks at home, where he’s loved by fans once again and comforted by familiar surroundings. There’s certainly nobody baulking at the site of him closing in on goal and nobody letting out sarcastic groans when his shots go awry, two increasingly common occurrences during his three-and-a-half years at Stamford Bridge.
At this point, it’s hard to tell if anything can be learned from Torres’ demise. Less talented strikers will move for much bigger fees this summer, yet they almost certainly won’t go on to endure a similar torrid fate. Perhaps it was simply a once-in-a-lifetime occurrence that we’ll never see again in the Premier League, but Torres’ spectacular fall is, at the very least, a reminder that even the very, very best aren’t impervious to drastic departures in form and that the mind, not the feet, is what separates those at the top of the game.