Even before a ball had even kicked in the 2011/12 Premier League, Chelsea manager Andre Villas-Boas already appeared tired of questions from journalists about the form of Fernando Torres.
Following a pre-season friendly against a Malaysian XI the former FC Porto manager was quoted as saying it had become an “obsession” of the media that he didn’t want to “waste time over”.
The reaction of Villas-Boas is completely understandable – he is an intelligent and media-savvy manager who is simply trying to protect one of his most important players.
Privately though I’d imagine he totally understands the high level of interest in a striker who – so far at least – has done little to justify his £50m price tag.
Villas-Boas will also know that his own chances of succeeding at Stamford Bridge could rely heavily on his ability to get goals from a player who – during the Spaniard’s best days at Liverpool – was one of the most devastating finishers in Premier League history.
To solve a problem it helps to have a clear idea of what’s causing it and that’s where things become so difficult with Torres.
Many theories for his loss have form have been put forward – since it first truly came to prominence – more than a year ago – at the 2010 World Cup.
Even before that tournament his former manager Rafa Benitez had described Torres as “exhausted” on 4th April 2010 – just days before his 2009/10 season was cut short by knee surgery.
It’s understandable then that some people put the lacklustre Torres of 2010/11 down to sheer fatigue – after all this was a man who – by the age of 26 at the end of 2009/10 – had played 365 competitive club matches for Atlético Madrid and Liverpool.
If fatigue is the main problem with Torres a summer of complete rest in 2011 should have helped greatly.
Another theory – and perhaps the most worrying one for Chelsea – is that Torres has already peaked.
Did Liverpool sell at the right time – a player who’d given them his best days?
It wouldn’t be the first time this has happened in recent history.
Robbie Fowler’s best season in terms of club goals scored is a total of 36 in 1995/96 at the age of 21 – he scored 31 the following season aged 22 – but has averaged 9.5 per season after that in English football.
Michael Owen’s best tally for a club season is 28 goals – managed twice in 2001/02 and 2002/03 – between the ages of 21 and 23 – since then he’s averaged 9.9 per season.
Other examples of Premier League strikers at their ‘peak’ provide further food for thought.
Andrew Cole’s best tally for a club season was 34 goals at the age of 22
Alan Shearer’s best tally for a club season was 37 – managed twice in 1994/95 and 1995/96 – between the ages of 24 and 26
Teddy Sheringham’s best tally for a club season in the top flight was 29 goals in 1992/93 at the age of 26
Thierry Henry’s best tally for a club season in the English top flight was 30 goals in 2003/04 at the age of 26.
Some strikers who’ve registered their best Premier League goals tallies at an older age than Torres (27) are Dennis Bergkamp (28), Les Ferdinand (29) and Gianfranco Zola (36).
The sort of longevity enjoyed by those three players inevitably requires a certain amount of luck with injury though – something Torres hasn’t always enjoyed a lot of.
As recently as June – Torres was quoted as saying he’s been “prevented from being in good shape” – and his occasional problems with groin, hamstring and knee injuries at Liverpool were well documented.
That said – he’s averaged 29 league appearances per-season since arriving in England in 2007 – and managed 37 during 2010/11.
Those games last season yielded a total of 10 goals – 9 of them for Liverpool – and that will have to improve this coming season if Torres is to prove the doubters wrong.
This leads on to the final popular theory on Torres – namely that Chelsea and even Spain aren’t playing to the strengths that brought him so much success in front of goal at Atlético Madrid and Liverpool.
Rafa Benitez struck gold with the special relationship that developed between Torres and Steven Gerrard – an almost telepathic understanding so rare at the highest level – but Benitez also made sure that his Liverpool team gave Torres what he needs most – space.
Torres at his best runs at defenders and does much of his work outside the penalty area – even dragging opponents out wide.
He likes quick service from midfield and he doesn’t share the limelight well up-front – just ask Didier Drogba.
The Chelsea of 2010/11 didn’t have the personnel, the formation or even perhaps the will to fully accommodate Torres.
It led to him often looking lost and ineffective – something that’s happened at international level on occasion – dating back much longer.
In 2008 I remember reading an article in which former Liverpool team-mate Alvaro Arbeloa said Spain don’t play to the strengths of Torres.
His goal-scoring record for his country would seem to show there is some truth in this too.
Torres has scored 26 goals in his 86 senior international appearances – that’s a goal every 3.3 games – compare this to his club record at Atlético Madrid and Liverpool of 172 goals in 391 appearances – a goal every 2.2 games.
Spain have flourished even without Torres firing on all cylinders – but the same couldn’t be said of Carlo Ancelotti’s Chelsea in the latter of half of last season.
The conundrum for Andre Villas-Boas is whether or not to build his new look team around a player who’s either peaked already, or is about to rediscover the sort of form that made him worth £50m in the first place.
With Roman Abramovich understandably keen to avoid a repeat of the Andriy Shevchenko saga – you couldn’t blame Villas-Boas if he were a little ‘obsessed’.