It is never surprising to hear Sir Alex Ferguson saying something ‘controversial’. Whether it’s emotional, pointless sniping at a beleaguered enemy or an attempt some kind of Jedi Mind Trick deployed to ‘psych out’ Liverpool and their players is up to you. An interesting point with Ferguson’s ‘Torres is the biggest cheater ever, EVER’ (possible paraphrase) comments is that they made headlines in most of Monday’s (English) newspaper sport sections – and this is indicative of the apparent need for character-centric narratives for much of the English press.
Of more interest however, rather than his ‘diving’, is his lack of incisiveness when playing alone up front. His two integral moments in Liverpool’s temporary comeback (winning the free kick and penalty) came with the entrance of David N’Gog alongside him at 2-0. The former was created largely with N’Gog drawing Jonny Evans out of position, allowing Torres to play off the dozing O’Shea and run behind Vidic. For an hour, without a partner alongside him, Torres was ineffectually drifting along the back-four, as Liverpool’s midfield struggled to find him with the ball. Roy Hodgson’s initial reaction to that may well be to partner Torres with N’Gog for the forseeable future – and it will probably end up being a popular move with the Sky Sports/Match of the Day punditocracy, as it necessitates a change from The Purveyor Of All That Is Ever Wrong With Anything Ever, Rafa Benitez, and necessitates Steven Gerrard moving into his ‘best position’ (where, curiously, he rarely plays well enough to stay for an extended period of time) in the middle of midfield.
But that not only moves Gerrard from the position where he has been most effective for his club (in the ‘hole’ behind Torres), but also means Roy has to play a 4-4-2: yes, the very same 4-4-2 that was routed by Manchester City and their fifty holding midfielders at Eastlands. And yes, the same 4-4-2 that became unable to get the ball back off United yesterday once the score went to 3-2. Well, one could argue, he has to leave Torres up front on his own then – to maintain a midfield worthy of preventing a complete massacre – even if it reduces Torres’s efficiency, at least he won’t lose games, and Torres will surely start scoring sooner or later.
But what if he doesn’t? Jurgen Klinsmann stated when in charge of Bayern Munich that he will play two strikers at every opportunity, partly to help keep his strikers fresh. The strain upon a lone striker is so great, in terms of the physical stature, pace, technique and concentration needed to perform the role effectively, that playing the role without a significant break would soon be detrimental. ‘I wouldn’t like to be Torres in two years’ was the general idea, and the strain on Torres may be akin to that placed on Ronaldo at Inter Milan – as from a silky, quicksilver forward he too tried to become a buccaneering lone striker, with injured consequences. And now we look at the Spaniard. From his arrival at Liverpool in 2007 he has been working almost without a break: in 2008 he played in the Euros (a major tournament generally means a truncated break for players), then the next season he spent playing (without a winter break) and working hard recovering from injuries, then the Confederations Cup before the same story the next season, before the World Cup.
And it has taken its toll: once fresh-faced, blond and smiling, then blond and powerful, now Torres lopes around defences, unfit, brown haired and non-threatening, like a late-era Ruud van Nistelrooy for Manchester United. With a partner alongside, the strain is less apparent, as he is not having to work as hard against four defenders – but playing N’Gog or Kuyt alongside him leaves the midfield often unable to cope against teams with 3 central midfielders. Perhaps the solution is give Torres an extended break, perhaps for a month or two, in order to recharge his batteries. Roy can try and muddle through with Babel, N’Gog, Jovanovic and Kuyt – and maybe Torres could well come back refreshed and (at least) as good as ever.
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