Fernando Torres’ latest frustrating performance passed by largely unnoticed. Less than 6,000 people showed up at San Siro on Wednesday night to watch Milan beat San Lorenzo 2-0 in the Trofeo Berlusconi. Even the Rossoneri’s owner, Silvio Berlusconi, whose father the trophy is named after, chose to stay away.
Such a low turnout is easy enough to understand. This was a glorified exhibition game played on a Champions League matchday. Most fans were likely at home watching that competition, and wondering how long it will be until their team returns to Europe’s top table.
But those who did attend might well have done so in the hope of seeing Torres score. After all, his only goal in eight appearances for the club so far had come away from home. The pressure-free setting of a friendly game seemed like the perfect place to recapture a little lost confidence.
No such luck. Introduced as a second-half substitute for Giampaolo Pazzini (who had scored Milan’s opener) Torres got through on goal twice but failed to beat San Lorenzo’s keeper on either occasion—even if his second such attempt was parried to Giacomo Bonaventura, who coolly slotted it home.
Goals are not everything, even to a striker, and there was room to draw encouragement from Torres’ direct running in the final third. But Pippo Inzaghi needs to see much more. The blunt truth is that, so far, the Spaniard’s presence has given his manager more questions than answers.
Milan’s best performance of this season so far came in a 3-1 win at home to Lazio on the opening weekend. Torres, freshly arrived from London, watched from the stands as the Rossoneri, playing in a 4-3-3 with Jeremy Menez as a false nine, tore their opponents apart with scintillating pace and movement.
In theory, Torres should have fitted right in. The manager himself had boasted just a few weeks earlier that Torres was setting new records for explosiveness at MilanLab’s testing facility. Of course, these sorts of improbable claims are part of the course with any major signing at Milan, but Inzaghi’s enthusiasm seemed genuine.
Two months and just a single Torres goal later, however, it is becoming harder to see where the player fits into this side. Over the course of eight games, Inzaghi has variously tried deploying him as the central forward in a 4-3-3 or a 4-2-3-1. Menez, the star of those two opening victories, has been switched out to the left wing, a No. 10 role and back again in a bid to accommodate him.
Such changes have had a negative impact on the Frenchman, no longer certain of his role in the team. It is noteworthy that, after scoring three times in those first two games, he has failed to find the net once since Torres was brought into the team. Yet a statistical comparison of the two players confirms the impression that it is Menez who contributes much more.
According to the website Squawka.com, Menez completes a higher percentage of his passes, successfully takes opponents on more often, wins more free-kicks, and surprisingly—despite giving up at least an inch in height to the Spaniard—also wins a significantly larger share of his aerial duels.
In fact, the only significant statistical category in which Torres trumps Menez is number of shots taken per 90 minutes played. But even here the figures work against him. Despite taking a much greater proportion of his shots from inside the penalty area, Torres is far less accurate than his team-mate—sending just 31 percent of his attempts on target compared to Menez's 47 percent.
Dig a little deeper, in fact, and you will find that Torres’ finishing this season compares unfavourably to that of all his attacking team-mates except Giampaolo Pazzini, whose brief substitute appearances provide too small a sample size for realistic analysis.
Of all the issues facing Inzaghi right now, Torres’ finishing might be the most bothersome. Finding a tactical scheme that can incorporate the striker while still making the most of such players as Menez, Keisuke Honda and Stephan El Shaarawy might not be straightforward, but equally it should not be beyond the wits of a determined coach—even if a degree of squad rotation is required to make it work.
But no amount of tactical chicanery can cover up for a striker who cannot put the ball in the net. And for all that Torres refined his game and developed into a more rounded player at Chelsea, he remains, at heart, a true striker—more at home playing off the shoulder of the last defender than he is dropping deep to link play.
Torres’ struggles in front of goal, of course, are nothing new. Not since 2009-10 has he reached double figures in a league season, even if he was prolific in the cups for Chelsea in 2012-13. That the English club were willing to sanction his move to Milan on a two-year loan with no fee, per the Guardian, suggests they had given up hope of him becoming prolific once more.
Conversely, the Rossoneri would not have signed him unless they believed there was a chance that he could. But already some fans are beginning to question such faith. Can Torres still turn things around, or is his time in Milan destined to be a disappointment?
There are good reasons not to write him off just yet. Firstly, because his start at Milan has been hindered by an ankle injury. Although concerns have been expressed in Italy that this might be a long-standing complaint, (story in Italian, via Gazzetta dello Sport) the possibility of managing it better going forward leaves obvious room for improvement.
Crucially, it also seems like a safe bet that Torres’ accuracy in front of goal should improve. Squawka.com's numbers also show that Torres put 49 percent of his shots on target in the Premier League last season, and 56 percent the season before that. In that context, it is his 31 percent this year that looks like the anomaly.
Throw in the fact that he is enjoying more attempts from inside the box at Milan than he did at Chelsea, and it is reasonable to anticipate that, over time, his goalscoring record should improve to a level better than it was at Stamford Bridge. It is unrealistic to expect a return to his mid-20s heyday, but he can still be a very productive player without reaching such heady heights.
And if numbers alone do not convince you, then consider the more simple fact that Torres arrived in Milan only at the very end of August, having missed preseason training completely. In the context, it is no surprise that he should have some difficulties integrating with his new team in a new league, and that Inzaghi—a rookie manager, lest we forget—might struggle to immediately devise a system that takes best advantage of his talents without impinging on the players he had worked with all summer.
Perhaps Italy's winter break will allow Inzaghi time to pause and think more deeply about strategies to incorporate Torres. The player, too, might welcome the opportunity to stop and reflect on the different styles of defending he has come up against in Serie A. Or maybe something will click before then, and his form will improve.
Either way, it is far too soon to write Torres off as a flop in Milan. Even if the frustration of watching another Champions League matchday without their team is making the club's supporters anxious for a more immediate turnaround.