Fernando Torres does not suck anymore. It may sound like fairly unremarkable praise to say that a rich and famous professional athlete manages to wring enough competence out of the limbs and lungs that have made him a millionaire dozens of times over to not be actively bad at his job. But for Torres, the fact that he is no longer embarrassingly terrible at his primary duty of scoring goals—and is actually quite good at it, at least of late—is a feat worthy of praise. Fernando Torres does not suck anymore. Isn’t that amazing?
Once the fresh-faced idol of his hometown of Madrid as Spain’s Great New Hope at the center forward position, nursed from a pup to a ferocious goal-hound for his country’s proud but overshadowed third team, then the joy of Liverpool as arguably the world’s premier pure striker, the 32-year-old Spaniard’s career has seen the highest of highs. More famous, though, is the rapid and puzzling descent which turned the former Atlético Madrid and Liverpool great into a Chelsea and AC Milan laughingstock, so hampered was his game by injuries and a shocking evaporation of confidence.
About a year and a half ago, Torres was arguably at the low point of a career littered with perceived nadirs. In the summer of 2014, he had finally gotten away from Chelsea, the site of the huge transfer fee and equally enormous expectations that seemed to weigh down on his mind and legs, never more so than those moments on the pitch right when scoring the ball looked inevitable. AC Milan had signed him on a two-season loan, hoping there was still enough ability there that a consistent run of games, a supportive atmosphere, and little by way of public pressure could coax out.
Instead, a few months into the season, Milan already wanted him gone. He wasn’t scoring for them, just like he hadn’t at Chelsea, and they had seen enough to conclude that his fortunes weren’t going to change. Chelsea had no interest in bringing him back either, though, and there weren’t too many suitors lining up to pay Torres millions not to score goals. It appeared he was stuck at an impasse.
His savior was his old team, Atlético, which came and lifted him out of the shame of his lowly state in a manner similar to how he had lifted them out of the second division to glory more than a decade earlier. As one of Atleti’s all-time most beloved players, Torres, it was presumed, had found his happy place. He wouldn’t be expected to rescue them this time, as he was returning to a club already in the fat part of its greatest era ever. Instead, he could serve as an elder statesman, coming off the bench, starting a handful of games here and there, a valuable resource to the team if for no other reason than the work-rate and intensity that manager Diego Simeone’s tactics regard as lifeblood. And, should he score a handful of goals any given year, each one would be celebrated like a game-winner by a fan base still enchanted with the very idea of their prodigal son’s return.
This was how Torres returned to the team in the winter of 2015. His first season was completely unexceptional. He made 26 appearances in all competitions, about half of them as a substitute, and scored just six times—three of which came in the least important competition, the Copa del Rey. Yet nobody much minded that Torres wasn’t very good. He gave the team quality minutes, ran his legs off when he did get on the pitch, and poked the crest on his chest and brought the home crowd into raptures those times he did score. Torres was playing—not much, but playing nonetheless—was happy, and was at a club more than content just to see him out there.
This season began in mostly the same manner. Atlético spent big to beef up its striking talent, bringing in presumed shoo-in starter Jackson Martínez and a couple of young super-talents for the near future in Ángel Correa and Luciano Vietto. Those three, plus Torres, would have to fight for minutes alongside Antoine Griezmann, the team’s star. And on paper, Torres was the worst of the bunch.
However, game time is only allocated according to on-paper stats in video games. The manager has his own selection criteria informed by what each player actually brings to games, and in Simeone’s case, the assumed striking hierarchy did not line up with his own vision. Early on in the season it was obvious that Simeone did not trust Martínez, so he didn’t play him very often and eventually sold him to China in the winter. In the search for a combination up top that worked, Simeone experimented with forward partnerships. At various times over the season it appeared he favored Correa playing next to Griezmann; other times Vietto would get a string of starts; sometimes Griezmann would start up top alone, with maybe attacking midfielder Yannick Carrasco playing behind him. Like any Simeone team, Atlético’s defense was great; if they could find a forward pairing that could regularly chip in a couple goals every game, then their team and season had a chance of really being special.
Amidst all of this experimentation with Correa and Vietto, Torres continued to get chances—a confusing number of chances, in fact, since he wasn’t doing much with them. After scoring two goals at the start of the season, Torres went a solid four and a half months without hitting the back of the net again—18 appearances in total. Torres’s defensive work was as valuable as always, as was his incessant running in behind the defense. But as has so long been the case, the striker still looked lost when he and the ball came together near the penalty box.
Yet Simeone kept running him out there, eschewing the promise and potential of Vietto and Correa and instead relying on the old man to find his stride. Whether it’s been all the game time sharpening his senses, or the confidence Simeone has imbued with his unyielding support, Torres has actually turned the corner. Since the start of the new year, Torres has scored eight goals and laid on two assists in 14 matches. The hottest part of this streak has been the past month, where he’s scored five of those goals in as many games, including critical ones against Barcelona in the Champions League and Athletic Club in La Liga.
Torres has appeared a new man as of late. No longer does he seem to panic when played into dangerous positions, overthinking what should be instinctual strikes by taking too many touches and skying the shot when it finally does come; now he’s hitting the ball first-time and with confidence, knowing that he has the ability to beat keepers and that even if he does miss, his place in the team isn’t under threat:
After spending millions of Euros and the entire season trying to solve their attack, Atlético finally have happened upon a natural central forward who fulfills the defensive, attacking, and scoring requirements the team needs to thrive. They are level on points with Barcelona atop the La Liga table, are into the Champions League semifinals, and have a great chance of surpassing their best-ever season of just a couple years ago.
If they do go on to win one or both of the trophies they’re still fighting for, Torres and his rejuvenated talents will have played an integral role in making it happen. And all because he’s somehow gotten good again, a development as astonishing as it is wonderful.