The best of times, the worst of times
Roberto Di Matteo’s sacking this week showed that Chelsea owner Roman Abramovich has infinitely more patience with his players than he does with his managers, and for that reason Fernando Torres is unlikely to leave Stamford Bridge just yet.
Di Matteo was obviously never Abramovich’s first choice during the summer search for a manager, making his employment tenuous from the start. So, when results began to deteriorate, it was only a question of when, not if, he’d be axed. Still, even Chelsea fans will have been stunned at the speed with which the club acted to relieve him of his responsibilities.
This insipid performance of the Champions League defeat against Juventus was bad enough for Di Matteo. What will have made it worse was his decision to start with Fernando Torres on the bench. A bold team selection can be justified with a result, a bold team selection followed by a defeat—with the owner’s favorite player left sulking on the bench—is akin to writing a managerial suicide note for a Chelsea coach.
To say Torres’ form has been patchy since his 50 million pound move from Liverpool in January 2011 would be more than polite. The striker has failed to reproduce any the form that he showed for Liverpool and Spain that marked him out as one of the world’s best strikers.
None of the three coaches that Torres has played for at Chelsea thus far—Di Matteo, André Villas-Boas and Carlo Ancelotti—managed to coax the best form out of the striker.
This is where Chelsea's interim manager, Rafael Benitez, comes in. Apart from being available and desperate to get back into top-level management, the Spaniard also knows what it takes to get Torres scoring. That alone was probably enough to get him the job and help Abramovich overlook his not-so-endearing habit of speaking his mind about his current employers.
Torres’ Chelsea career has yielded 11 goals in 58 games, close to one goal in every six games. Even when he has had patches of form and started scoring, he’s never looked convincing. At Liverpool, with Benitez as coach, Torres' scoring rate was better than a goal every other game. The Spanish coach’s first task will be to restore that kind of form in his countryman.
What does this mean for a deal for Radamel Falcao? The Atletico Madrid striker’s stunning form has attracted the attention of Europe’s top clubs, and he has been repeatedly linked with a January move to Stamford Bridge. That speculation has also raised the prospect of an unhappy Torres moving on to end his Chelsea nightmare.
Torres’ best form at Liverpool came playing as on out-and-out striker with support coming from an attacking Steven Gerrard in midfield rather than a second striker. It is a good bet that Benitez will seek to replicate a similar dynamic, with either Oscar or Hazard in playing a more advanced role.
If that formula works, it’s unlikely that Abramovich would sanction spending countless millions on another striker who would likely be surplus to requirements.
Benitez’s team at Liverpool was built on defensive solidity with a dash of attacking flair. Chelsea’s ranks are already crammed with the creative and gifted; their inability to keep clean sheets this year suggest that more grit, rather than artistry, is what is needed.
Instead of hoping for Falcao to join in January and revive their season, Chelsea fans should look forward to Benitez stocking up on defensive midfielders in January.