Fernando Torres might well be remembered as a Chelsea flop, but he was only deemed such a failure there because of how wonderfully brilliant he was at Liverpool. His period of superstardom didn’t last, but at least we got to see it.
It took just two Premier League games for Fernando Torres to win over the pundits.
English football had lost Thierry Henry in the summer of 2007, and a vacancy had opened up for a world-class forward to take English football forward. Cristiano Ronaldo might have been the one to end that campaign as the league’s top scorer, with a Champions League medal to boot, but Torres emerged just as impressively that season.
Unlike Ronaldo’s transformation at Old Trafford, however, Torres emerged as a modern number nine and as a marquee signing who hit the ground running and laughed in the face of those who even posited ‘should we believe the hype?’ as a question.
Coming off the back of several impressive seasons in Spain, there was expectation from Anfield alongside tempered optimism from those who knew a big transfer fee didn’t always equate to guaranteed end-product. Fifteen minutes into Torres’ home debut, everyone was on the same page.
It didn’t matter that the defender he beat was Tal Ben-Haim, a man not always known for his pace. The excitement came from watching a young frontman (he was still just 23) trusting his own abilities and knowing he had scored with a defender and goalkeeper still to beat.
To pull off a stop-and-go move on an opponent is impressive enough, but to do so without fully stopping – only really implying stopping – is very special indeed.
And as for the finish? How could you not think of the recently-departed Henry when watching a man in red open up his body and find the far corner?
To watch that goal against Chelsea, and then to turn to the Torres reduced to rubble by a spell playing for the team he showed up that day, is as dramatic a shift as the one which left Ben-Haim running through treacle at Anfield.
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Torres ended that season with 33 Liverpool goals – the highest return of his career by a double-figure margin – buoyed by three hat-tricks.
Those trebles, against Reading, Middlesbrough and West Ham, mean he remains the only man in Premier League history to take the matchball home three times in his debut season – even the most prolific forwards in English football couldn’t reach the mark that quickly.
And just a glance at the hat-trick against Boro – enough to seal a 3-2 victory 10 years ago this week – shows the combination of fear and precision that made his dream season possible.
Even if the first goal began as a gift, with Julio Arca’s mistimed header playing him through, Torres still needed the pace to run clear and the hunger not just to round Mark Schwarzer but also to beat fast-approaching team-mate Dirk Kuyt to the tap-in.
The second is, as with many of Torres’ goals in his first two Liverpool seasons, a triumph of instinct. It’s a player having the goal in his sights and getting the shot away before his opponents can blink and letting the rest take care of itself.
When you’re scoring for fun you don’t aim for the corners, you find them as a matter of principle. It looks like you’re getting lucky, or that you’re hitting and hoping, but it’s all down to being so in the zone that sometimes your body leads the charge without your mind even needing to send it instructions.
The third might not seem cut from the same cloth, but it is up to a point; in-form players will chase lost causes in a way that those struggling for goals will not, almost as if anticipating when, not if, the chance will fall their way.
However, the qualities which came as second-nature to Torres in that first season are the same ones we could cruelly see slipping away once he left Merseyside off the back of repeated struggles with injury.
Torres’ struggles later in his career show the fine margins between being the best and being anything but, and demonstrate how hard it is to accept your level when you used to be capable of so much more.
While he had no trouble rounding the keeper and finishing smartly against Boro, he was only able to complete part one during Chelsea’s defeat against Manchester United in September 2011: the instincts remained as he rounded David de Gea but didn’t stick around long enough to stop a thoughtlessly easy finish becoming simply thoughtless.
Similarly, one game later – having opened the scoring against Swansea City – Torres produced the kind of hassling and harrying for which he developed a reputation as a youngster.
The only difference was that his body couldn’t make the same movements at the same pace with the same accuracy, meaning what might in 2007-08 have been a flying block as part of a high press became an ugly foul that not even manager André Villas-Boas could excuse.
The struggles of Torres’ later career were absolutely noticeable, but they wouldn’t have happened without the earlier highs.
A lesser player wouldn’t have got himself in the position to fail, because he wouldn’t have been familiar with the idea of succeeding from those same spots.
He might be remembered as a Chelsea flop as much as a Liverpool legend, but the former came from a position of believing the latter could continue, and anyone who claims they’d have rather he played it safer during his first 12 months in London could certainly be accused of failing to understand what made him so great to begin with.
For it was a refusal to play with fear that brought him those 33 goals and three hat-tricks in his first season in a new country. It was a refusal to play with fear that saw him travel to Old Trafford and make mincemeat of one of the world’s best defenders in Nemanja Vidić.
And it was a refusal to play with fear that saw him collect the ball down the right channel during Liverpool’s 2009 meeting with Blackburn Rovers and even attempt this.
Sure, we could have had a safer and slightly more productive Torres at Chelsea, but if that required a trade-off for a safer version at Liverpool, I know which one I’d choose.
By Tom Victor
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