Torres on evolutionary path
It was Fernando Torres, but not as we know him. Not merely because a previously goal-shy striker scored a second brace in four days but because of how they came and how Chelsea used him.
Neither was a typical Torres goal. But while the question had been posed if problems were tactical, physical or psychological, the fact he took a penalty suggested his confidence is returning. Yet his role differed from his first spell under Rafa Benitez's management.
Then he prospered on the counter-attack, Liverpool - Steven Gerrard and Xabi Alonso in particular - often looked for quick, long passes over the opposition defence or, when further forward, to slide balls into the channels for Torres to use his pace. When Chelsea have adopted a similar policy, the Spaniard’s diminishing speed has been apparent: he has been thrust into races he used to win and no longer does.
It was different at the Stadium of Light. Chelsea did not look for Torres with long balls into space. He was rarely forced into a straight sprint with a defender. Instead when the visitors broke, it was by using their trio of creative players as the outlets, rather than the striker. They were able to run it out at times.
Whereas the Liverpool Torres was invariably his side’s most advanced player, Benitez gave the Chelsea Torres a different brief. Sometimes he dropped deep; at others, the attacking midfielders ran past him. The first chance, in the first minute, was instructive, with Eden Hazard making a diagonal run to meet Juan Mata’s pass. The Belgian was the designated left winger. By asking others to take responsibility for stretching the defence, Benitez allowed Torres to operate as more of an attacking pivot.
In the second half of his career, Torres has two options: to remain the penalty-box predator or become more of an all-round player, who is involved in the build-up more. While the third goal, scored by Mata after Torres responded to a Phil Bardsley mistake with a snap-shot against the post, suggested the former, the overall impression was that Benitez has opted for the latter.
His fellow Spaniard’s first goal – the second came from the spot – was instructive. Torres made his reputation by breaching offside traps, not arriving late in the box as the second line of the attack. Here he had to catch up with the crosser, Hazard, to volley in.
The other unusual element came in the build-up. In general, there is less fluidity about Benitez’s Chelsea than Roberto Di Matteo’s side. It is not 4-2-3-1 as much as 4-4-1-1 with an emphasis on the wingers staying in position to shield the full-backs.
However, they can, and did, interchange with the man in the hole. Normally, it entails one in each of the three positions, even if not his designated role. So this was an anomaly: as Hazard picked out Torres, he, Mata and Victor Moses were all on the left of the pitch.
The 4-4-1-1 brings inevitable comparisons with Benitez’s Liverpool, although at Anfield he had a chance to mould that team in the transfer market. He may be playing a similar shape with very different footballers. Indeed, he spent much of the match with four flair players playing behind Torres: when Oriol Romeu went off injured, Oscar replaced him, operating as a deep-lying playmaker. While Benitez is sometimes deemed defensive this was actually the most progressive line-up Chelsea have fielded in the first half of a game this season.
If it is too soon to crown Oscar Benitez’s new Alonso, it added another dimension to Chelsea. Their second goal was a case in point; the award of the penalty followed Oscar’s aerial, accurate cross-field pass to Hazard. It was not a ball the suspended John Obi Mikel, the usual occupant of the holding role, would probably have played.
It may have only been a temporary switch, caused by a ban and Frank Lampard’s lack of match fitness. Chelsea finished with a more defensive side with Lampard alongside Ramires, Oscar shifted to the right and Ryan Bertrand sitting in front of Ashley Cole. It was evident why he looked for an insurance policy for either full-back.
They were left horribly exposed at the end of Di Matteo’s reign and, while Benitez has had his wide men in deeper starting positions, tactical discipline is not the same as stopping players. Sunderland, lacking creativity in the centre of midfield, rely on their wingers for invention and Adam Johnson had perhaps his most influential game of the season.
Yet if Benitez’s task is to make his Chelsea creators ape Dirk Kuyt, a winger who shielded his right-back rigorously, he may have decided he cannot turn the clock back in Torres’ career. Rather than relying on the pass to use his pace, now he needs a more rounded forward who can finish from different chances.