Thursday, 15 November 2012

Why Fernando Torres is running our of time to prove he can be Chelsea's number nine

Making bold claims about the Premier League is a dangerous game at any point of the season and you would have to be really confident in your opinion to claim that a team who are three points off the top of the table have a significant problem before the Christmas lights have been turned on.

However, Chelsea have an issue.

Roberto Di Matteo's men have picked up just two points from the last nine available in the Premier League and have seen their Manchester rivals move ahead of them in the table. With United struggling to solve defensive problems and City yet to hit their stride, Chelsea appeared to be in a strong position to take advantage.

Of the top three sides, Chelsea looked the most cohesive in the early weeks of the season. Although David Luiz's penchant for chaos requires constant management, the defence has been tight. Chelsea's rearguard suffered from the loss of John Terry in recent weeks (and now may continue to do so), but has conceded only one more league goal than the tightest of Premier League defences.

The greatest problem lies at the other end of the field and is wearing the number nine shirt.

It would be wrong to refer to Fernando Torres as the rather expensive elephant in the room. Although he carries a hefty price tag, his struggles have been well documented. He's in the room, but everybody has noticed him and the atmosphere is slightly uncomfortable for his presence.

There have been days where the Spaniard has shown glimpses of the player the Premier League once knew, but they have been and gone without long-term change. The time may be approaching for Chelsea to look for a new spearhead to their attack. If they are to win the Premier League, they may have to.

After a period of regeneration under Roman Abramovic, which one suspects will continue for a few transfer windows yet, Chelsea are not far away from having the qualities needed to get their hands on the league title once more. There will be a time where the superb Thibaut Courtois gives the Chelsea goalkeeper shirt a younger occupant, but this season's mixed-generation defence are not the reason why City and United have moved above the Londoners. Chelsea's 11 goals against is one worse than City, while United have conceded a generous 16. Why is it that a team who have conceded more than Swansea and Sunderland are at the top of the table?

The answer is a simple one; they score goals. Lots of them.

While City have combined a tight defence with a reasonably potent attack, Manchester United are leading the pile because they are compensating for a leaky defence by simply outscoring the opposition. The leaky defence will irritate Sir Alex Ferguson, but it makes little difference when the two conceded are being offset by three going in at the other end.

Chelsea have the third most effective attack in the Premier League this season, but they are not getting the returns required from their £50 million striker. The use of price to measure a player's ability has always annoyed me. If Torres had cost £35 million, we wouldn't shrug off a misplaced pass 'because you only get that if you pay £40 million'. You judge ability with your eyes, rather than by the fee above their head. Good players will always cost big fees, but we shouldn't criticise Torres because he isn't living up to the money that was paid for him. We should criticise him because he isn't providing his team with the return that a player with his ability should be doing.

Fernando Torres couldn't ask for much more from his team-mates. Chelsea's midfield and attack has a good balance to it. Mikel is developing into an intelligent holding midfielder and the astonishingly mobile Ramires provides both defensive protection and the catalyst for the quickest of counter-attacks. Chelsea have enough quality to control the midfield and provide a platform for their attacking quartet to perform.

In Oscar, Mata and Hazard, Chelsea have a phenomenal supply line. There are very few teams in the world who can boast an attack with such a splendid blend of speed, trickery, vision and imagination. The fluidity provided by the trio makes them incredibly difficult to defend against and should provide the perfect platform for a number nine to flourish.

However, Torres isn't. He is being outscored in the Premier League by Kevin Nolan. The West Ham man has always had a great ability to burst forward from midfield to score goals, but when the main striker from a title-chasing team has hit the net fewer times, there is a problem.

The statistics support this view, but the extent to which they question Torres' impact is surprising.

Chelsea have scored six goals fewer than table-topping United and the statistics provide an insight into why this may be. As the title-race looks likely to be contested by three teams, City are also included.

While the Manchester clubs average six shots on target per match, Chelsea are only one behind with five. However, the positions where each team shoots from is interesting. While United take 60% of their shots from inside the penalty area, with City registering 61%, Chelsea only take 54% of their shots from within the penalty area.

Why are Chelsea struggling in this respect? Their attacking players are no more adept at shooting from range than Rooney or Van Persie, yet a significantly higher proportion of their efforts are being fired in from outside the box. In the striker's role in Chelsea's 4-2-3-1 Torres should be providing the focal point to the attack, as he did in his Liverpool days. However, the runs behind defences that the Torres of four years ago would make are rapidly vanishing. He does not test opposition defences in the way that he used to. Watch any compilation video of Torres' goals and see the goals that he used to score. He would stretch defences in the channels and square the defender up, before bursting past him and finishing with ease. To watch the struggles of the current Fernando Torres is sad. Whether it is the mental belief or the physical yard of acceleration that has gone, the absence of the spark that made Torres so special is troublesome.

The Torres of old would have countless efforts within the course of a game, yet he is now averaging just 2.2 shot on goal per game. Both Mata and Hazard strike for goal more frequently and Oscar is only narrowly behind. Di Matteo will be pleased that the three supporting players are getting into the positions to test the goalkeeper, but the fact that Torres isn't leading this statistic is worrying. Torres is failing to get into threatening positions as frequently as he used to and when he is there, he isn't finishing as clinically. While he is getting two opportunities per game, the chances of him rediscovering the clinical touch in front of goal are reduced.

In comparison, Rooney (3.4), Van Persie (3.1), Tevez (3.1), Aguero (2.8) and even Dzeko (2.9), who is so frequently deployed as a substitute, are having more shots. Christian Benteke, who is clearly playing ahead of a far less creative midfield, is averaging 3 shots per game at lowly Aston Villa. However you look at it, Torres is not providing the threat that you would expect from a number nine.

Elsewhere, Chelsea are scoring 61% of their goals from open play, compared to City's 65% and United's 69%. Considering the system Di Matteo deploys, there is no excuse for them to be falling behind their rivals and the struggles of Torres are playing a significant part in Chelsea's struggle.

The primary role of the number nine in the Chelsea 4-2-3-1 is to score goals, but with the goalscoring ability of Mata, Hazard and Oscar behind him, Torres' involvement could be supported if he were linking the play and creating chances for others. However, the statistics in this regard are equally damning.

Torres is yet to register an assist in the Premier League this season and his pass completion rate currently sits at 70.5%. This is the worst pass success statistic of any outfield player at Chelsea and is 8.8% lower than David Luiz, the next lowest. With 29.5% of the Spaniard's passes not finding their target, Torres is giving the ball away far too frequently. Mata, Hazard, Oscar, Sturridge and Moses are all averaging over 84%. At the rival clubs, the most similar attacker is Dzeko. He averages a pass success rate of 72.6%. However, six Premier League goals from his limited game time mean that he is still providing his manager with a solution.

It is when a number nine isn't scoring, assisting or maintaining possession in a 4-2-3-1 that the manager would be entitled to question his performances. Considering many have been left questioning the striker since the day he arrived, it is debatable how much longer Torres can command the lead-role in the Chelsea attack.

The Chelsea support are fully aware of the money that their club can invest in the transfer market and following previous anticlimactic transfers, some are all too happy to demand similar expenditure from their owner. This is modern football. It strips the identity from the individuals involved and goes into Football Manager mode. If it isn't working, buy something else.

The alternatives are both luxurious and available. Radamel Falcao is one of the world's hottest goalscoring properties and although his Atletico Madrid side are flying in La Liga, the sides who covet the Columbian may not have to wait too much longer. Alternatively, Edinson Cavani was reportedly considered by Chelsea in the summer.

Both have the credentials to thrive at the head of Chelsea's attacking quartet. While neither are massively better than Torres in terms of pass completion rate (although they are better), they are a totally different proposition in front of goal. Cavani and Falcao both average over 3.5 shot on goal in each game and their goalscoring records reflect their ability to seek out opportunities. Falcao has scored 13 goals in his 11 club games this season, while Cavani has scored 14 from his 14 games (2 were as a substitute).

In the past three seasons, Chelsea have created more chances than any other Premier League side from open play. If Di Matteo is given the option to buy a striker who is going to provide the goals that Chelsea's attacking approach demands, it is going to take something special to stop them from picking up trophies.

It gives me no pleasure in saying it, but if Fernando Torres cannot prove quickly that he has more to offer Chelsea than both performances and statistics suggest, it may be time for Chelsea to purchase a newer model.

All statistics provided by WhoScored?com.

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