Sunday was a day when Fernando Torres could have answered a lot. He was returning to Old Trafford, the scene of his last goal away from Anfield, and the stage on which he could make the most crucial of differences. His performance, however, still left much to be desired.
Admittedly still short of service, he meanderered through the game, continuing in his spectatorship to leave Dimitar Berbatov free for United’s first goal. At the end of the game, by all reports Torres did not show his appreciation to the away fans for their support, and did not appear from the tunnel for the warm down.
Recently he has seemed reminiscent of a broken man, the vigour and effervescence of his usual game replaced by lethargy and limpness. This is a man that is down on his luck, seemingly out of love with a game, a league and a club.
It was not always this way. In the Premier League last season he scored 18 in 22 games. Liverpool lost 11 games last season, but only three in which the Spaniard scored. It is clear that Torres’ record is enviable, but perhaps the most telling statistic is that in the last three seasons, his goal have single-handedly gained Liverpool 41 points.
Alongside Stevie G, he has been the stand out player. But this precisely the problem: When Torres does not perform, Liverpool do not perform and vice versa. This downward spiral is the principle problem facing Roy Hodgson: negativity breeds negativity. For so long Torres has been a talisman for Liverpool success; suddenly he is a representation with a lethargic and lacklustre Liverpool.
So what is wrong with El Nino? And what can be done?
The first question is his fitness. Since being rules out for the rest of last season on 18th April to undergo knee surgery, Torres has looked off the pace for both club and country. He had a below-par World Cup, on stage that would usually be suited to a player of his aptitude, and picked up a further injury in the final after coming on as a substitute. The importance of a full pre-season cannot be overestimated, especially for a player relying on pace and power in combination.
Hodgson stated that Torres would not be rushed back, but he was made available for the first game of the season against Arsenal. Perhaps a rest period would be the answer individually, but it is difficult to see this as an option for Liverpool. Even off colour, with the limited choices available it would be somewhere between brave and stupid to think that other options could be as successful in the Spaniard’s absence.
The second problem is service, and within lies the opinion of the majority of Liverpool fans: just look what he does when he is given the ball. The evidence is there. When Dirk Kuyt teed up the striker against West Brom in August, the home win was sealed.
Torres wants the ball to feet, he wants it played over the top of the defence, he wants it played down the channels. But this simply hasn’t happened recently. Yesterday Torres was starved of all possession, Pool’s midfield leaving him woefully undervalues and underused.
There are two ways to attack this issue. The first is to play with more width, meaning that Torres can have the ball played into his feet from wide areas. This allows Torres to do what he is good at: twist and turn with his back to goal, shrug off a defender and instantly shoot.
But this is not really a viable option at present. The only real ‘winger ‘ that Liverpool have in their squad is Ryan Babel, and he is more out of form than Torres. Instead Liverpool have Kuyt, Cole, Jovanovic, Maxi, Meireles, Gerrard, Poulsen and Gerrard. Kuyt aside, none of these have impressed so far at Anfield (though some deserve more time) and all but Gerrard have been purchased in the last year. Gerrard has to do so much more of the nitty-gritty because Xabi Alonso has only been replaced by substandard players.
The second option is to give Torres a strike partner. Not a strike partner of David N’gog’s quality (because although he is improving he is not a top four striker) but a striker that can be tailored to fit the strengths of Torres. The lack of a viable option (N’gog, Meireles, Gerrard, Kuyt, Babel, Pacheco and Jovanovic have all been tried as a support striker) is what is crippling Torres: there is simply too much responsibility on him to score all the goals.
I believe that the most important point to make in the whole Torres debate comes from Old Trafford. Wayne Rooney is out of form. He has scored two goals in 18 games for club and country. Therefore why are we not writing this column about Wayne? The simple reason is strike partners. For Manchester United, Dimitar Berbatov has scored seven goals in six games; for England, Jermain Defoe has four in four. Before Saturday’s game, in 2010 Gerrard had four Premier League goals. Kuyt has also scored four. No one else has contributed more than two.
While this is the rational judgment, it is not the preferable one. The transfer window has closed. Liverpool signed players, but not a goalscorer. They currently sit 16th in the Premier League, having conceded two points per game to Chelsea so far.
Whatever the reasoning, it is a problem that could destroy if left unsolved. Torres is an ambitious young footballer that joined Liverpool in 2007 after they had won the FA Cup, Super Cup and Champions League in the previous two years. The striker made a decision to stay at the club this summer, but that was on the promise of personal and collective success. If both are not achieved, and they are instrinsically linked, then he will surely reconsider his stance. One thing is for certain: there will not be a short queue knocking at the door.