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joetweedie | September 3, 2014

The Fernando Torres Odyssey

Fernando Torres' Chelsea journey is officially over. With his departure on a two-year loan deal to AC Milan, one of the sorriest chapters in the club's recent history can finally be closed. The feeling of euphoria surrounding his deadline day move in January 2011 has almost been met with an equally cathartic sense of relief. Torres’ legacy will vary. Many will vehemently argue his time has been a complete catastrophe. Others will give weight to individual moments of elation. What cannot be disputed is that on balance it has been a deeply disappointing move for both the Spaniard and the Club.

Cast your mind back to that fateful day in January when Fernando Torres joined Chelsea for a record transfer fee. It was almost impossible to not be engulfed in a wave of optimism. Chelsea were faltering and our summer business had not enabled Carlo Ancelotti to strengthen his double-winning side. The answer, apparently, was a lavish outlay on one of the Premier League’s great marksmen. Fernando Torres would surely fire Chelsea to the title in the second half of the season.

Hindsight is an absolutely wonderful thing in situations like this. However, the due diligence around what has long been considered an owner signing must be questioned. Torres’ electric pace and adroit play on the last shoulder were the hallmarks of his game. His shooting opportunities typically came from an ability to burst into space from direct through-balls. The Liverpool team at the time were perfectly suited to playing to this strength, and Torres exploited sides regularly.

The problems surrounding the Torres we’ve come to know were already in motion by the time Chelsea signed him. This notion that the club somehow ruined him is a comical, albeit easy narrative for an overtly red media to push. The very thing that has brought Torres his goals was, by then declining at an alarming rate. Torres’ drastic loss of pace and mobility can be attributed to a knee operation in 2010. It had a long-term effect, resulting in muscular problems that can stem from a poor rehabilitative programme. The rumours of Chelsea rushing a medical (or in some cases, not actually conducting one) were rife. Nevertheless, Torres signed a lengthy five and a half year contract on exorbitant wages for a gargantuan transfer fee.

Torres scored 50 Premier League goals in 72 appearances up until that point. Thereafter, his goal return of 35 in more than 130 Premier League appearances says everything you need to know. Crucially, his top speed, number of shots on goal and number of completed passes in the final third had fallen dramatically. While Torres’ average top speed might appear to be an esoteric statistic to reference it is so interlinked with his success that it is salient to note. Torres’ ability to sprint past players at ease and finish had been severely hampered. Gone was his scintillating acceleration, and with that loss mediocrity loomed.

The accumulation of injuries Torres suffered was mishandled by Liverpool’s medical team. He would never be able to ascend to the heights he once touched. Only the very best footballers can reinvent themselves, and Torres was merely an exceptional speedster. Torres had become an average player almost immediately after his 2010 surgery. Debating the value of statistical analysis when it comes to player evaluation is certainly worthwhile, but in this case it might actually have led to us not signing Torres.

He only managed to score nine times in 23 games for Liverpool in the 2010/11 season; he would typically be hitting 20 goals in the same amount of league games. If the club thought they could revitalise Torres due to our record with injured players, this might explain why they took the plunge. It just seemed unfathomable that Torres would buck the trend for a player of his ilk.

What I cannot fathom to this day is just how Torres ever fitted into Chelsea’s team stylistically. We have always functioned best with a true centre forward leading the line. Didier Drogba exemplified this better than anyone, and Diego Costa looks to be continuing that trend. Torres’ penchant for running in behind defences was something that we had never really used as a primary weapon.

It would seem that Torres’ arrival would dictate a completely different style of play at Chelsea, one that marginalised the power based approach typified by Drogba as the spearhead and worked so well from José Mourinho to Carlo Ancelotti. However, this was never going to work in practice – Chelsea did not have the required players for even a peak Torres to flourish. We needed a powerful presence up front who could occupy a back four through his physicality, thus allowing our midfield and widemen to join attacks and power through the opposition.

Everything changed when Torres came and our way of playing deteriorated as we attempted to try to accommodate the Spaniard. Torres’ pace was non-existent and he was being exposed as a horrifically poor player with his back to goal. The signs were ominous during his first half-season with us; he would never improve.

What happened next suggested that Torres’ physical condition was in such a bad place that he needed to over compensate with gym work to rebalance his body mechanics. Juxtapose him during his time at Liverpool with his last season at Chelsea. He looks noticeably thicker and more muscular. His lean and quick frame had to take on extra mass to compensate for the string of injuries that his body had suffered. Any pace he had was now being eroded by the need to be physically stronger to avoid injury. Michael Essien suffered a similar fate, although the Ghanaian still had a better time of things post-injury.

With Torres’ physique changing so did his style of play. Gone were the attempts to get in behind teams. Now he had to try and adapt to becoming the focal point of a side intent on playing its power based football regardless of who the striker was. The results in itself were truly stunning to witness; for all the wrong reasons.

After a lifetime of never having to play the role of a complete striker, everything seemed out of sync. His first touch was appalling, the frequency with which he turned and ran the ball into traffic was insane and his finishing looked completely shot. This was a player who had lost any semblance of ability playing with the confidence of a man who knew he was grossly underperforming.

In Torres’ first full season with Chelsea he hit six league goals. Diego Costa needs another two goals to match that output having played 29 games less at this point. He was by now a running joke amongst opposition fans and there was little to be done in terms of defending him. The most worrying thing was that his overall level of play was truly abysmal.

I can buy into a non-prolific striker if he is central to everything a team does: pulling defenders out of position, setting teammates up and generally causing havoc. Yet, we actually looked like a side playing with ten men whenever he started. It was baffling to see this former world class striker look so uncomfortable in possession.

In a peculiar way it was the flashes of form that he showed that made it all the more unbearable when he inevitably returned to normal. Never has a player who has performed so abjectly received more support from match going fans. If ever there was a glimpse from the Spaniard it immediately catalysed hearts and minds into a scenario that saw Torres finally show the ability we bought him for. I even wrote at length, more in hope than expectation, after a string of decent performances proclaiming that Torres looked like he was back. I probably have never been more wrong.

Torres tugged at your heart strings and played with your emotions. There was so much invested into the transfer from a personal standpoint that you never really gave up hope that one day he might just turn things around. The fact he came from Liverpool, we paid an extortionate amount to obtain him and the stick he got from opposition fans meant we closed rank on the Spaniard. Any time Torres scored the roar was a little louder than any other player. Any time Torres played well he was definitely returning to form. We were, sadly, blinded by our own faith that he might just come good.

Torres’ career to some extent was blighted by his own disciplinary record. Arguably his best run of form, games where you legitimately thought he influenced the outcome, ended with a reckless two-footed challenge against Swansea. Those rare patches where things appeared to briefly align would come crashing down after a few games on the touchline. There was never an on/off switch with Torres. He was more like a valve that needed a certain amount of pressure to open up. Any time we looked to be nearing that point, something always happened to close it up again.

The slow nature of Torres’ ascent to form and rapid decline thereafter epitomised his time at Chelsea. Always appearing on the cusp of something, he will be one of the biggest “what ifs” at Chelsea. The truth was dawning on Chelsea fans and despite that last vestige of hope Torres faded into being a parody of his former glory. The amount of money generated from click-baiting FOOTIELADBANTEREPLLULZ sites regarding Torres styled memes was extraordinary. If Chelsea had considered releasing their own, they might have actually recouped some of the transfer fee they paid.

It was now wholly sad to witness Torres play for Chelsea. The ball bounced off him like an unrefined version of Emile Heskey, he ran down blind alleys as good as any player may ever have done and his repeated inability to convert open goals was becoming almost impressive in its woefulness. Torres was finished in a Chelsea shirt. As hard as that was to really accept, an even more grim prospect was staring Chelsea in the face. Torres was one of Chelsea’s highest paid players and arguably our worst performer. He was tied down to what was looking increasingly like a horror show of a contract and that £50 million transfer fee looked more ridiculous every passing day.

Then the club appointed Rafael Benitez. For many fans this was seen as the biggest slap in the face that they had ever received. His “welcome” against Manchester City was as vitriolic as Stamford Bridge had been heard in a very long time. Torres, rightly or wrongly, was interwoven with Benitez and some of the sentiment spilled over into the striker’s cup. We had got rid of a club icon and appointed in his place one of the most hated men of the Roman era. What made it worse for Torres is that it apparently seemed like a last desperate attempt to rekindle his own career.

His best goal scoring season at Chelsea was tempered by the fact the majority of them came in a secondary European competition. His impressive streak in the Europa League culminated in a well taken goal in the final. The overall perception was that this was merely padding another meagre return in the Premier League.

Oddly, memories of Torres are unlikely to entirely revolve around him being the greatest transfer flop in football history. It is strange to think that despite him falling so far below what was expected, he still managed to score some of the most emotionally charged goals in Chelsea’s history. For those in the Nou Camp, as Torres ran half the length of the pitch to round Valdes and slot the ball home, his £50 million transfer fee was paid back in full there and then. You can argue about the importance of the goal, but having been beaten by Barcelona at the very death previously I was not counting them out until Torres made it 2-2.

That single moment is going to define the very nature of Torres’ legacy at Chelsea. Anyone who can legitimately tell me they did not lose the plot is not a true Chelsea fan. That goal was the very definition of Chelsea’s European Cup winning side. It was the goal that defied every odd and every piece of logic ever applied to a football match. Yes, we were through, but we were never safe until Torres scored. In a way it captured him perfectly. On to provide fresh legs while the team was under heavy pressure, he had given the ball away in almost criminal fashion and neglected to try and win it back, meandering up the pitch instead. Then a desperate Ashley Cole clearance changed the course of the match.

Torres collected the ball with the entire Nou Camp at his mercy and what felt like a chasm of space between him and goal. His first touch, unusually, was immaculate. Every subsequent touch thereafter was at odds with the man we had come to know. As he bore down on goal I could not help but feel that he was somehow going to miss. Then he rounded Valdes. The rest is history. Speaking with fans at that game they tell me that there has never been a feeling like that when watching Chelsea. It is, for the very select few, on par with the feeling Drogba’s equaliser in Munich. Anyone applying logic to that goal just simply does not get football.

So how do you weigh up Torres’ time at Chelsea? Football does need to return to being about the enjoyment of the game rather than an exercise in statistical comparison. What produces more of a buzz – Torres’ Nou Camp goal or working out a minutes to millions ratio of goals scored? It is definitely a tough one to properly evaluate. Logically, there is only one conclusion to be made. Torres was a spectacularly bad gamble that has hung around the neck of the club for too long. He has meant that in the shadow of financial fair play, it has become almost impossible to solve the problem area with him remaining at the club.

Conversely, removing logic from the game and focussing on the Nou Camp, that mental winner against Manchester City, Amsterdam and some notable performances, is Torres’ legacy more attached to the memories he provided?

Ultimately, Torres was a deeply flawed player at Chelsea who provided some flawless moments. Pontificating about how truly awful he was or attempting to take into account his contribution on a purely emotional scale is neither a true or entirely fair reflection. The club bought him when he was in decline and exacerbated things by continuing to play to anyone’s strengths but his. Nevertheless, Torres was on a king’s ransom at Chelsea and his preening demeanour when walking around the pitch never really sat well. He downed tools too readily for me, and the hunger or drive to do well seemed to evaporate by the end of last season.

The majority of me is relieved to see him go and I will openly admit to being irate at his performances last season. I do not feel sorry for Torres: how can I? He was picking up a tonne of money at the club and still tried to negotiate a severance package. One could argue it was his right, given the contract he had signed, but when he has performed so spectacularly under what was expected it felt more than a little cheeky.

Torres’ legacy is somewhere between abject failure and okay, with a sprinkling of stellar moments. It is rather disappointing that as Torres is leaving the club the only thing to really think of is one defining goal, albeit one of the greatest moments I have ever experienced. Even suggesting things should have worked out much better seems to fly in the face of logic. Torres was never suited to the club, never really got the club and was on the path to burnout a year before we signed him.

The Torres odyssey is finally over, and I hope we can now move forward as a much stronger squad with greater depth. Interestingly enough, post-Torres the vast majority of our transfers can be considered excellent – perhaps this was a shift in policy and intangibly something we should be thankful for. As Torres rides off into the Milan sunset, I definitely thank him for some amazing memories. However, I hope we do not make a similar mistake ever again.

About the Author

Plains of Almería Editor & WAGNH Features Writer.

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