Torres In Form Resolve Mourinho’s Forward Issue

Amazing what a difference three years, five managers and 142 first-team matches can make. In his fitful, and occasionally fraught, three years at Chelsea Fernando Torres has so far been back, and then back to square one again, too many times to count. This time, though, it may be a little different.

There are two things worth noting about Torres’ fine form in the last five weeks. First, for all his occasional comeback-curious moments at Chelsea, he has never put together such a concerted run of solidly match-shaping performances. And second, there is at last a textural difference to what he is being asked to do.

He has changed physically in the last few years. That long-standing knee injury has altered the scope of his mobility, although with gears fully cranked up he remains, in his slimmed-down form, a compelling spectacle in full flight. Just ask Gaël Clichy, who was taken apart on the outside at Stamford Bridge on Sunday like a mismatched prop-forward being gunned down by a flying right-wing.

What Torres has perhaps needed most in the past two years was to be asked to stop playing like Torres and instead take on something similar to the pared-back central role in which he has excelled recently. He may not have been Mr Right when José Mourinho set out trying to source a muscular forward to play his favoured central battering-ram role, but with Wayne Rooney beyond Chelsea’s reach he has turned out, almost by default, to be Mr Right Now.

Against City, Torres was eye-catchingly good in that Mourinho-refined central position, still straying wide to link with Chelsea’s nimble-footed midfielders but in the second half concentrating on making an impact in central areas. Showing again that he now has the fitness to keep his energy levels high right to the end – witness his brilliantly destructive central charge for the winning goal – Torres flustered Javi García and Fernandinho by dropping back into their space and making runs through the centre-forward position.

It is a tactic that takes a certain amount of pressure from Torres’ shoulders. He has a clearly defined role in the team: to bring outright aggression and an enforcer’s thrust to a front four Mourinho has described variously as “boys”, “fragile” and “delicate”, and to do so by direct running with and without the ball in central areas, and by challenging repeatedly the opposition centre-backs.

It was noted how quickly Torres recovered his composure after shinning over the bar from eight yards out in the first half, but in a way he was simply acting under instructions. There is no time to think, or to become introspective or discouraged when it comes to Fernando In the Middle: it is simply a case of doing a very physical job. It is a role that is becoming increasingly well-grooved. Against City and Tottenham Torres attempted 11 dribbles and won 19 one-on-one duels.

Against his other five league opponents he attempted five dribbles and won 10 duels, albeit four of those were as a substitute. Similarly, his touch map shows a player willing to drop deep and carry the ball forward, often – not shown on the graphic – taking possession and turning to face the opposition goal.

This is a familiar José-specific tactic but also a variation on a popular method elsewhere. Mario Mandzukic added a brilliantly muscular focus to Bayern’s attacks in their Champions League run last year, less of a central steamroller, more a high-grade funnel for their attacking midfielders. Robin van Persie can provide a similar central drive for Manchester United or play with his back to goal as a forward pivot. Olivier Giroud occupies a central furrow at Arsenal and thoroughly roughed up Borussia Dortmund’s centre-halves at times in midweek.

These are, of course, very early days at José-Chelsea Mk2 but, for now at least, faced with the prospect of a post-Rooney consolation prize of a centre-forward, Mourinho has pulled off a feat of management that has nothing to do with theatrics, spending power or defensive organisation, but is instead a tribute to his powers of persuasion and invention.

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