Simeone still searching for Diego stunt double, but Torres being put to good use
When some 40,000 enamoured fans welcomed Fernando Torres back to the Vicente Calderón earlier this month, expectations were moderate at best. Six matches later, only one performance has been conspicuous – the unanticipated brace at the Santiago Bernabéu in the Copa del Rey – but the acquisition of El Niño should be considered a success on the evidence so far.
It is a borderline conclusion. His debut at the Calderón in the first leg against Real Madrid was quiet, and while the two strikes in the second tie transformed his 18-month loan move into an instant fairytale, Torres has done little else since.
With the dust from that memorable night long settled, the statistics show six matches, 263 minutes and two goals. That returns a decent minutes-per-goal ratio, but the irony is unlikely to be lost on Torres. Having failed to beat Real in his first stint at Atlético, the Bernabéu now seems to be the only ground in which he scores.
Another opportunity could arrive tonight. Atlético host in-form Barcelona in the Copa del Rey determined to overturn the 1-0 deficit from the first leg last week, when Lionel Messi’s late penalty settled things.
History is on Torres’s side: he netted seven times in 10 games against the Catalans before leaving Madrid in 2007. Should the evening prove fruitless, Torres may still carry out the crucial tasks assigned by coach Diego Simeone to help the team’s build-up play. The 30-year-old has clocked up enough minutes since his return to demonstrate exactly what Simeone expects of him.
A large part of Torres’s role centres on working the channels and offering hold-up play. Even at his peak in Liverpool he was a direct, counter-attacking player.
Rafa Benítez knew the trick of finding him with early passes or playing him in behind the defence. Torres needed space. Skipping past defenders in congested areas was never his speciality.
Such ill-suited scenarios occurred too often at Chelsea, a team with a slower passing tempo than Benítez’s Liverpool. At Atlético, they will not.
Since the departure of Diego Costa, Simeone has missed a strong and mobile forward who can drift into wide areas, hold up the ball and win free-kicks high up the pitch. Costa did this admirably, even though his success rate against Barcelona could vary.
The loss of this dimension was a frequent talking point last summer. The new signings have given Atlético’s attack a different profile. Mario Mandžukić is the robust battering ram that thunders home crosses and wins headers, while Antoine Griezmann is the light-footed dribbler that buzzes round him.
But neither are Costa. Neither possesses the combination of power and pace required to work wide areas while brushing off defenders. Mandžukić is too slow; Griezmann too delicate. This notion appears to be reflected in their movement. Neither has seemed inclined to replace Costa as a wide-drifting targetman.
This is where Torres comes in. He can fulfil this role – the physical attributes have not declined as sharply as the technical – and his habits have so far depicted a player intent on replicating some of Costa’s work.
The opportunities have been limited: Torres has not yet completed 60 minutes in a match, but he has been happy to receive long passes and link up out wide. (He played 22 minutes at Barca, 59 against Granada.)
This is in many ways a selfless job. It involves heavy running and hard work in areas far away from goal. But it is valuable and, while Torres has not succeeded at everything, he has helped the team in more combative ways.
The notion of sacrifice also includes his defensive game. Atlético’s strikers are told to stay close to the midfielders and shield the double pivot, particularly away from home. Torres has pulled his weight.
The more barren part of the Torres assessment is his productivity. Aside from the brace at the Bernabéu, it is difficult to deny his impotence. In 101 La Liga minutes since returning, he is yet to register a shot.
Torres was handed a big chance at home to Rayo Vallecano. He was sent one-on-one with goalkeeper Toño by Griezmann but, as he tried to round him from the right, the custodian clawed the ball away.
That particular match, in which Torres played the last 20 minutes, also brought his passing game into relief. Across the three La Liga games, his completion ratio stands at 60%.
A worthwhile move
Simeone did point out early on that Torres would be no saviour upon his second coming, and that much has been true. The long-awaited move has been positive thanks to his Bernabéu heroics, eclipsing the fact that the other five matches have produced the type of performances his skeptics had forecast.
But his contribution should also be assessed in the context of the situation. Torres arrived for free in exchange for flop winger Alessio Cerci, and has added depth to a striking force of little quality beyond first-choice duo Mandžukić and Griezmann. The other option, Raúl Jiménez, has scored once since signing in the summer.
So as long as Torres continues to deliver sacrificial performances, occasional hiccups in front of goal may be excused. By giving him a physical and industrious role that befits Atlético’s direct system, Simeone has already put him to good use.