Both of Chelsea's recognised strikers have less-than-savoury pasts, injury-wise, but one has, more or less, come through well, and the other very much hasn't. Demba Ba's patented trick knee is often described as a "ticking time bomb," but there's an even greater bomb lurking around the corner...
Or should I say was?
The bombs in Fernando Torres' knees have long since exploded, taking the Spaniard's pace and form with them. Knees and hamstrings have always been career-killers, but Torres' injuries have been particularly-devastating. The football world has by-and-large, been surprised by the sharp decline of Fernando Torres. They really shouldn't have been. All the signs were there. He was a catastrophe waiting to happen.
After rising to prominence with several solid seasons with boyhood club Atletico Madrid, Fernando Torres announced himself as a world-class talent with 33 goals in 46 appearances in his first season at Liverpool. Since then though, he's been in a steady decline and suffered a string of unfortunate knee and hamstring injuries. Despite this, he still managed another big-money move, this time to spend a while swimming in the seemingly-bottomless pockets of his new Russian uncle Roman. Most of us were, understandably, excited to see one of the world's most highly-regarded strikers joining one of the either giants of the game.We all know how that turned out...
If you can stand it, watch the first few minutes of this video. It's a video of all 81 of his Liverpool goals. The first few minutes are critical to understanding why Torres was living on borrowed time, career-wise. Obviously, all the scenarios lead to goals in that video, but since more detailed footage from five years ago is shockingly-hard to find, it'll have to do. The first thing which should have hit you is that his game involved more long shots and headers back then. That they've largely disappeared is definitely significant, but not the biggest reason his decline is most likely permanent.
Now you've noticed that, take another look at the video. Look at what he does with the ball at his feet. Compare that to what he does at Chelsea. They're kind of similar, right? The most obvious difference is that he was significantly faster five years ago. I'm sure plenty of you are asking why I have such a problem with him doing the things which made him successful. If you've read Graham's award-winning* piece on Demba Ba's goal against Southampton, you should be aware of what a proper centre forward should be doing. Torres isn't really doing that, even at his lifetime best. His primary danger comes from his ability to knock the ball past the defender[s] and getting clear with a quick burst of pace.
I think you can see just why Fernando Torres' downfall was always written in the stars, but in case you can't, let me explain. Fernando was dangerous because he could exploit any small opening with his pace, not because he was particularly adept at putting himself into the best positions and moving properly once he got there. Let's go back to the video. You know how I said his play at the beginning of his Liverpool career looked similar to his current Chelsea play? Go back and take a look at the goals in which his pace is central. Now imagine those situations if he lacked that pace. If you can't, just find a "Fernando Torres Chelsea Highlights" video. It's okay, I'll wait.
As we know, though, his pace didn't suddenly evaporate. After all, there a good ten minutes of the video left to watch. Now would be a good time to watch the rest of it. [On mute if you haven't muted it to this point.] We're about to meet middle-period Fernando Torres. You may notice he's not exactly slow at this point, but you should see a distinct thinning of the amount of pace-dependent goals. You should also see him standing still more and more, where his teammates can find him. The battle between dynamic and static is a major feature of middle-period Torres, and -- spoiler alert in case you haven't seen him play lately -- static wins in the end.
As you may have guessed, this is the period where he starts suffering his first major knee problems. It steals a yard of pace from him, which makes his usual method of relying on that pace unsurprisingly less-successful. When he does turn on the pace, instead of opening a clear gap between himself and the defender, he's barely ahead of them more often than not. The good news for him is that, despite finding less success with his dynamic play, his static play still pays off, likely due to the last vestiges of his explosive pace making tight marking dangerous. I think we could all live with middle-period Torres, really. It's still frustrating to watch him stand around, but his occasional bursts of pace keep defenders honest and give him space to operate. A series of minor injuries over those two years mean that, by the end of it, the shine is starting to come off a little.
Unfortunately, though, that's when the second round of major knee injuries hit. Whether it's due to structural problems or the recurrence of injuries forcing him to push the limit less often, yet another yard of pace has vanished into the Aether. This is the period covered by the last few minutes of the video. The period where he gets around defenders less and less often until he reaches a point where he simply has put pressure on in hopes of forcing an error to capitalise on. It's almost sad, really. When you compare the Torres you saw at the beginning to the one struggling at the end, you really have to wonder how we all convinced ourselves he wouldn't be a disaster. Of all the times when YouTube scouting would have helped, we mostly didn't use it. Go figure. : )
Though it really doesn't matter why he lost a second yard of pace, I believe that it's a bit of both physical and mental problems. His injury record suggests to me that either he's somehow licked the injury problems he had, or that he's not pushing as hard as he might in order to prevent injuring himself again. The effort explanation is the more logical on the face of it, but the last time I recall him really pushing himself to his limit, this happened. Incidentally, the look on his face as he realises that he's hurt himself again are kind of heartbreaking in hindsight, it's as if he knew the fight was over on a deep level.
In a way, it was. For me, that was the day the Fernando Torres of legend died, replaced by the Torres now resident at the Bridge. It's all so obvious when you look at it. He was never going to have a long career at the top without some sort of miracle scenario regarding injuries. Why didn't anybody see he was a humongous risk?There were too many flaws in his game. They were covered well at first, due to his pace and goals, but, eventually, when the pace evaporated, the goals went with it. That's where Chelsea came in, and that's why he scored just the one goal in his first half-season. Can you imagine being Fernando Torres in 2011? Aged 27, under the pressure of a £50m transfer to Chelsea, and your powers gone, laid low by injury?
It's not surprising, then, that he's since admitted to having some pretty dark thoughts about that time. Personally, I think he's to be commended, at least a little, for picking himself up and trying to reinvent his game at 27. Unfortunately, though, it's gone nearly as well as you'd expect. The habits of a lifetime die hard, and while he's had the occasional decent game, he too often retreats to the comfort of his old tricks. In a sense, there's a real chicken-egg situation about Torres' play as a proper No. 9. Is he bad because he neglected those skills in favour of pace as a kid, or did he neglect them because he was bad? Either way, it's a sad sight to see someone having fallen so far, even if he's still getting a fantastical amount of money despite his being rather bad.
Ultimately, the story of Fernando Torres will be a tragedy, given the trajectory of his football. Despite his vast haul of medals and a wage packet bursting at the seams, he'll always be considered one of the biggest transfer blunders in football history. It didn't have to be this way. We should have seen the signs, and Roman should have kept his wallet shut, but it's done. It's over. He's broken. He's never coming back. No matter how much we want him to. Let's not fight about it any more. There's more to life.