Is Daniel Sturridge the man to solve Chelsea’s Torres woes?
Torres is not firing, but history suggests this could be remedied with the England U21 international
Sturridge and his role
Daniel Sturridge, the jet-heeled young England forward of great promise, was typically understated after a match-winning performance against Denmark for England in the qualifiers for the U21 Championship, in which he scored one, made another, and bossed the game. In between the usual clichés about emphasising the contribution of his teammates (“The team performance today was fantastic and we all worked hard together”) and how they were “pleased with the win”, there was some snippets of obviously off-script speech in which he looked truly enthused. One of the most interesting was his analysis of himself and his position in the England U21 team.
“The manager’s got me playing in a free role where I can roam around the pitch and get on the ball and it was really good out there for me today. I enjoyed it. I just wanted to get out there and help my team mates and win the game and that was the most important thing to do.”
Sturridge’s sincere pleasure at his new role was apparent. Previously deployed as either a striker or a winger, the former Man City player has carved himself a niche in Stuart Pearce’s side as a deep-lying forward drifting from flank to flank, combining with the wingers in a formation that is extremely fluid at the top. A mix between a 4-2-3-1, Pearce’s formation seems to get the best out of his team of fleet-footed versatile youngsters and in particular, Sturridge, who has become one of the side’s key players after an extremely good half season on loan at Bolton. However, at Bolton, he is generally deployed as a striker playing off a powerful target man like Kevin Davies or Johan Elmander, though he has been used on the wing often. This role suits him, but it is markedly different to the one he fulfils for the young lions; at Bolton, he drops off the player ahead of him, peeling away into the hole. For his country, he plays much more permanent game in the hole, stationed behind the striker and playing balls through to him and the wingers.
Fernando Torres’ lack of goals
Since his controversial £50 million move from Liverpool, it has been no secret that Fernando Torres has been struggling at Chelsea. Unable to use his fitness as an excuse, his form is at rock-bottom. This is not helped by the fact that his teammates play in a system unsuited to him: in his best years of his career under Rafa Benitez, 2007-09, Torres played as a prima punta, the focal point of the attack and the main striker with the effervescent Steven Gerrard in behind him. The Liverpool trademark goal was one of some grace; a swift counterattack started with the boot of Xabi Alonso, quickly pinged upfield to Gerrard via a winger, who then laid on an exquisite throughball between two defenders for his striker. Torres, cutting inside from the defender’s blindside, used his blistering pace to get away from them and his unerring finishing to place past the goalkeeper. Torres was at his peak in a system playing to his greatest strengths, that of good off-the-ball movement, threatening pace and reliable finishing.
In Benitez’s last year Torres struggled for fitness, understandably considering he’d been playing almost non-stop for three years both domestically and internationally. After Benitez was replaced by Roy Hodgson, things got worse: coming off the back of fitness niggles, Hodgson’s horrific style of football was a complete change to the system Torres knew and loved. Instead of his strike partner Gerrard (or indeed any creative player) in close proximity, Torres was forced to wear himself out running the channels as the ball was punted long. His partner in attack (generally David N’Gog in a 4-4-2) stayed level with him and provided none of the splitting, probing passes Gerrard did.
How the two would work together
So, then, the obvious way for Chelsea to get their expensive No. 9 firing is to return him to fitness and play him in a system in which his main assets can be brought to light. The former is fairly simple; Torres seems to be at full fitness as it stands. However, with Sturridge’s emergence as a classic No.10, playing in the hole, it would seem that the stage is set once more for Torres to take to his favourite 4-2-3-1.
As we can see, theoretically Chelsea could line up with a 4-2-3-1 whilst also retaining key personnel (though we’ll get to that later). Cech plays behind a back four of (from the left) Cole, Luiz, Terry and Ivanovic/Bosingwa. Ahead of them is a double pivot, with John Obi Mikel playing the deep-lying destroyer role he plays so well, occasionally dropping into the centre of defence when Chelsea are in possession to allow the fullbacks to bomb on down the flanks. Alongside him, an energetic midfield of the ilk of Ramires or Michael Essien would contribute in both defence and attack, surging forward to enter the attack late.
In the front four, on the wings are Florent Malouda and Nicolas Anelka, playing their regular roles as they do in Chelsea’s current lineup as outside-to-in wide forwards. In the centre, Sturridge (black band) would perform the same role as he does for England U21s, drifting around in a free role behind the striker, as Torres (red band) hangs on the shoulder of the last defender ready to use his pace.
Well, the personnel is a big one. Whilst this formation would suit the likes of Essien, Mikel and especially Torres down to the ground, Chelsea would have to make the massive step of beginning to wean themselves off the influence of their ageing legends Frank Lampard and Didier Drogba.
Lampard is a truly phenomenal player, one of the best the Premiership has seen for some time. On the pitch his influence is something that pervades Chelsea from defence to attack. With a sense of timing few have mastered to a similar level, Lampard’s runs from deep cause havoc in the opposition defence, and his technical and creative abilities coupled with a thunderous shot and sublime close finishing skills mean that he is rightly one of the most feared midfielders in the Premiership. However, it could finally be time for Chelsea to relegate him to squad player.
A 4-3-3 is something Lampard works extremely well in, running from deep as the tip of a midfield three. He has thrived in that role, but it may finally be time to switch to something that benefits this current group of players more. Lampard is 32, and has at most another two seasons at his very best left. On top of that, he isn’t suited to playing permanently in the hole: the experiments under Scolari backfired massively. To play the formation which Torres excels in, a 4-2-3-1, you have to either drop Lampard or trust him with the more offensive of the two defensive midfield roles. Not only that, but he lacks the type of vision and passing technique that the very best playmakers have. It would be best for the team and for Torres if Chelsea dropped him and switched to a 4-2-3-1.
The point is even starker with Drogba. Chelsea’s main striker is one of the best in the world, the complete package. That said, experiments to play him with Torres have failed, and it seems to be a straight shootout with Torres for a central striking spot. On current form and ability, Drogba would have it sewn up, but Chelsea need to start looking to the future. In Torres they have a striker who can give them another four years of service at least, whereas Drogba’s career at the top, like Lampard, may only last two years at most. Lampard and Drogba have been Chelsea’s dogs of war, their consistent matchwinners these past few years, and the transition may be painful but it has to be done for the future of the team.
Another possible flaw is how the team would seem to rely solely on Sturridge for their creativity, but this is a void argument considering the same would be levelled against Chelsea with Lampard, and they’ve been consistently good. The central nature of Malouda and Anelka also means that they come inside to help out, with both of them able to pick a pass well. Yossi Benayoun also has the ability to come on in any of the positions, and challenge Sturridge for a starting place. The versatile, pacey nature of the three behind Torres would mean that all of them could interchange seamlessly, threatening different parts of the backline at all times.
Remember the counterattacking Liverpool goal that Torres was superb at finishing in his heyday? There’s just one thing missing in this Chelsea team. They have the Gerrard (Sturridge), the Torres (uh… Torres), and two wingers of similar variety to Liverpool’s. They have a deep-lying destroyer in the same mould (Mikel). What they are missing is a deep-lying playmaker of Alonso’s artistry and vision. Essien is a great player, and physically perfect, but neither he nor Mikel can pass as expansively as Alonso could, though there are few that can. Maybe for the future the promising Josh McEachran could fulfil this role, but for now this remains the biggest flaw in the system.