In his three most recent substantial appearances for Chelsea, Fernando Torres has looked a striker reborn under new boss Jose Mourinho. We've all seen the false dawns and subsequent declines which have come to define the Spaniard's Chelsea career, but this time, there's something different happening. Something positive.
I've written before on the subject of Torres' game, and come to some pretty damning conclusions. His play never really centred on well-developed skills as a centre-forward. He was overly-reliant on pace and under-developed technically. Since he's moved to Chelsea, though, that's started to change. Obviously, he's taken a hit in the pace department, which has horribly-exposed his deficiencies on the technical side.
Thankfully, the Spaniard has put in a lot of work on developing a more all-around game over the last two-plus years in London. Until now, though, it's never truly worked for him. Or, for that matter, for us. His scoring record is full of sporadic bursts of goals with long stretches of useless toiling between. It's not exactly done a complete one-eighty this season, though. After all, his goal against Manchester City was only his second in the Premier League for 10 months or so. In all competitions, though, it was his fifth in 11 appearances, including the ill-fated UEFA Super Cup.
It's all too easy to play down his form as yet another false dawn or a lucky patch, but, to my eyes, there's something different happening here. Through goals, assists, and should-be-assists, Fernando Torres has been involved in every goal Chelsea have scored in their last two matches, scoring three of the five himself. Neither the number of goals nor simply the involvement in them is what has led me to believe we're seeing the emergence of Fernando Torres Mark 2.
The difference is that none of the good things he's done has been belaboured for even a second, as we've come to expect from him. How often have we all seen him do something positive, only to see him pause halfway-through or take six extra touches? In the last two matches, and a bit less so against Tottenham, Fernando Torres has been decisive and not been caught standing around like the £50m traffic cone we've come to know.
Let's get to the goals I mentioned earlier. I'm not going to sort them in chronological order here, since there differing interesting threads among them. On that point, the first two aren't even his goals. They are the goals scored by Eden Hazard against Schalke and André Schürrle's goal against City. Together, they show a much-more rounded striker and player than we've ever seen from Fernando Torres at Chelsea or even Liverpool.
For the Hazard goal, Torres wasn't directly-involved, but he managed to play a critical role. Of course, Ramires' long ball and Hazard's run and shot were just as or more important, but Torres' decoy run to draw the covering defender away from the Belgian was an outstanding piece of team play from Torres. In past years, I don't think the Spaniard would have executed that run so perfectly, or even been with the play to do so. When you remember that he was on a hat-trick, Torres dedication to drawing the defender over making himself an outlet is more-remarkable.
On a similar note, Torres' assist for André Schürrle's opener yesterday showed a new side of Chelsea-era Fernando Torres. That it came mere minutes after one of the more-disappointing misses -- which is saying something -- of his career as a Blue is arguably-more-impressive than the technical skill involved it delivering it. Instead of crawling back into his shell of mediocrity (tm), Torres got the ball, blew past Gael Clichy to the by-line, and delivered an excellent low cross to the German waiting four yards out.
While the goals have dominated the headlines of late, his team play has been a bit less-talked-about. I think, though, that it's been just as important to the impression of the re-birth of Fernando Torres. At Liverpool, he wasn't known for much more than his deadly scoring ability. In fact, he's recorded more assists at Chelsea than the whole of his Liverpool career, despite the generally-poorer play on offer.
The ability to now be more than just an end-point for Chelsea means that Torres is much more of a threat to opposition defenders. These days, when he gets in behind defenders, he no longer simply drives toward the goal, offers a low-percentage shot, or crosses lamely to nobody. He's somebody defences have to worry about, which only increases the chances of his now-unmarked teammates behind.
At the risk of of seeming to downplay his team contributions, it's time to move on to the goals he actually scored. Well, perhaps his out-and-out striker play, since I want to start with a trio of goals he could, or perhaps should, have scored. Honestly, with just a little bit more luck or concentration, Fernando Torres could easily have had a pair of hat-tricks in a pair of tricky matches.
In Germany, where he did score twice, he came within inches of a spectacular goal when he did well to get a free header from Frank Lampard's second-half free kick. Unfortunately, the dipping header missed the top corner by inches, instead cannoning off the corner of the frame and was cleared. Similarly against City, he made some space for himself at an acute angle in the box, surprised everyone with his shot, and again found the frame by inches with Hart left for dead.
What made it even better was that, like the Schürrle goal, it came after he lamely shot over the bar, having wonderfully-controlled Ramires' pass into him. He'd later claim that he thought he was offside at the time, but Torres really should have buried it past Hart, who was already going to ground. In the past two matches, it was the most-usual Torres-at-Chelsea event to occur.
The two most-unusual moments, however, have both excited me greatly. The first goal at Schalke and the winner at home to Manchester City showed a determination which has been so-often absent from his game. Both required him to follow the play through and capitalise on moments of luck and defensive mistakes. With the Fernando Torres of old, I seriously-doubt whether either chance could have been considered a proper chance, let alone been converted.
The first, against Schalke, saw Branislav Ivanovic's header from Frank Lampard's corner get through the German club's defence to the back post, where Fernando Torres, following the play nicely, was situated perfectly to head into the open net. True, it was a defensive lapse first and foremost, but in the end, Torres had the forethought to capitalise on that lapse. It was true centre-forward play from a man who has so often failed to provide it.
The second, famously, was all on Joe Hart, who, rather than let Matija Nastasic handle a Willian long ball by heading it back to him, came out to collect it, missing the Serbian's header and giving Torres a sniff of a chance. The Spaniard pounced immediately, beating Martin Demechelis to the ball and finishing from a tight angle to win the match for Chelsea. Lost in the madness of Hart's rush out is the fact that the chance was actually fairly-difficult. It required a burst of pace and a good finish.
I can hear you asking the question now, "But, Kevin, you said earlier that he's lost that pace. How could he have used it against City?"
That's a very good question, and really, it's kind of a trick, for, you see, Jose Mourinho has been coaching his players on reactions and explosive acceleration. The Portuguese manager was quoted after match as saying,
'I did nothing,''said Mourinho, showing an out of character modesty. ''It would be easy for me to say that we did this or that, but we did nothing.
''We work with our methodology. We believe our methodology improves players' sharpness and speed in the first 15-20 metres.
''You can see John Terry looks light, sharp and light. Easy running. It's a methodology that helps the players.
''We work high intensity for short periods, and that helps them to become sharp.
''But Fernando's responsible. He's worked very hard since I saw him.
''I don't know if he was the same last year. Since I arrived he's worked very, very hard every day and sometimes he was on the bench, sometimes not selected, sometimes I left him at home. But every day he was the same.''
So, not only has Fernando Torres, along with the rest of his teammates, found a fraction of his missing pace and sharpness, he's been working extremely hard in training. We don't really know if that's new or not, but there's never been much suggestion that the striker was lazy on the training ground. Therefore, I think it's more likely that nearly three years of struggling to re-invent himself has borne fruit and that he's discovered something which has enabled him to translate his intentions into useful play.
That is why I think this could very well be a new era of Fernando Torres at Chelsea. We've seen the false dawns and omens before, but the fact is that he's no longer fluking a chance among a sea of listless, ineffectual play. He's contributing and looking like a credible threat to defences. To put it simply, Fernando Torres has stopped succeeding despite his play. He's now succeeding because of his play.
At the same time as he's developed a more-useful skill-set, Chelsea have begun to the transition into being a team who thrive on space and on the counter. While at Liverpool, Torres was always highly-reliant on space to speed away from defenders for goal-scoring opportunities. Now, though, there's more of a technical flavour to his exploitation of space on the pitch. Taken together, a somewhat-renewed pace, more technical aptitude, and a gameplan more suited to his talents all point toward a Fernando Torres ready to play an important role for Chelsea.
Of course, only time will tell if he can sustain this form and be an asset worth hanging on to, but, barring major regression on a fundamental level, he should at least be more-saleable, despite his wages. He might never truly be worth his price to Chelsea, but, these days, he's not a liability at Stamford Bridge, and will be good somewhere. That's a much-less-catastrophic outlook than ever before in his time here, where it's mostly been "useless for Chelsea, and nobody would want to buy him." Who is that man wearing the No 9 shirt? Fernando Torres, showing some long-overdue promise in blue.
[NB: *I am expecting him to start against Arsenal and regress horribly now, as cosmic punishment for writing this piece.]