Football's obsession with personal statistics, particularly goals scored, is as vexing as it is understandable. In a sport sadly lacking statistical nuance and analytical depth, it makes sense to focus on one of the few quantifiable achievements available to a player. But the fact remains that despite Fernando Torres' well publicised drought -- insert your own El Niño joke here -- Chelsea have been significantly better since he slipped into the No. 9 shirt.
Of course, the man himself took 732 minutes to score his first and so far only goal, and has been roundly mocked, derided, and chortled at in the process. But goals don't matter in their various guises, in their sources or character, except inasmuch as a team requires one more of them than the opposition to win a game. Who or where it comes from is irrelevant So, in the sixteen games before Torres signed for Chelsea, they won six, drew five, and lost five, which works out as 1.43 points/game (they weren't all league games, but it's a handy measure). Since he signed they've won nine, drawn four and lost three, which is a neat 2 points/game.
All of which means that Chelsea with Torres average .57 points/game more than they do without him. Fact (as the surely-not-though-it-would-be-hilarious-Stamford-Bridge-bound Rafael Benitez might say).
The sample size is too small for this to be a concrete or useful calculation of Torres' exact worth or impact upon the team; correlation is not causation. But even without claiming that, it's evident that Chelsea have, quietly, improved significantly over this period, regaining a touch of the remorseless functionality that characterised last year's title. Despite making mistakes at the back -- David Luiz, the other new arrival, demonstrating a magnificent capacity for being brilliant and a liability all at the same time -- and even with Fernando In The Wilderness up top, they've been gathering momentum, moving past Arsenal, and causing one or two red Manc hearts to flutter. Just a little. In the league, anyway.
Were I to indulge in my own bout of abstract cod-psychological speculation, I would suggest that the arrival of another alpha striker has acted as a kind of memento mori for Didier Drogba, who hasn't really been under pressure for his place since ... well, since Andrei Shevchenko (and we know how that went). Footballers are sensitive creatures with gigantic egos; football teams, and squads, are conglomerations of these delicate monsters, and require a functional balance. Not affection, or even respect -- Teddy Sheringham and Andy Cole famously didn't speak off the pitch for years -- but a coherence that allows the various component parts to operate to their own and their teammates maximal ability. If Chelsea are getting that with Torres, and weren't without, then that's all that really matters.
Except, of course, that it isn't. As much as we might pretend that football is about teams beating other teams until we've worked out who, on balance, is best, we know it's not true. Football is about stories, about grand narrative swings. Success or failure in extremis. A striker doesn't score for one game, it's a pity; two, three, a problem; four, a dry spell. And then, the dreaded drought, a blighted desert spotted with the bleached bones of wretched forebears. That? Chris Sutton's shinbone. And that's Shevchenko's tibia. Welcome to the badlands, Fernando, not sure blue's your colour. And what have you done to your hair?
Of course, goalscorers are supposed to score goals. But footballers are supposed to win football games. Torres goalscoring drought hasn't prevented (and may have assisted) Chelsea to win more games than before he arrived (in general; he probably shouldn't have started the second leg of the Champions League quarter-final), and so it's been largely an irrelevant drought, like the lack of rain on the moon. It's not a problem if the green cheese stays dry.
So why did everyone care? Obviously, it was quite funny while it lasted, and comedy websites and Twitter accounts proliferated. There is a delicious dollop of schadenfreude in watching Chelsea waste money, in seeing the financial dopers duped. And Torres himself, while evidently gifted, has never been admired by fans outside Liverpool in such a way as to garner much sympathy; his previous congregation -- a mouthy bunch at the best of times -- have been naturally and gleefully derisive. Meanwhile, back at the Bridge, Carlo Ancelotti and the weird gestalt entity inhabiting his eyebrow hit new heights of expressive dissonance. Everything is fine, says Carlo. Liar! screams the eyebrow, writhing its own mad tarantella.
But more generally, we can garner from the Torres hubbub an insight into the workings of the mainstream football media, specifically its great affection for the epic. The preferred narrative is that of the individual hero (or anti-hero), to be understood and presented as dramatically and earth-shatteringly as possible. Whatever the facts are, they are magnified, puffed up, given a startling coat of paint, and pressed into the service of the saga. And while the telling of any story not only requires but benefits from a certain amount of authorial manipulation, much football reporting exaggerates wildly in one direction, and then, following a tiny reversal of fortunes, charges violently back in the other, creating false narrative swings and counter-swings that serve nobody except those who would continue writing the story, then the opposite of the story, then the opposite of the opposite of the story, for as long as they can get away with it.
It is tempting, perhaps, to locate the birth of this tendency to the establishment of the Premier League, a handy Rubicon for those who would lament the passing of everything good and pure from football. And it's probably true that the establishment of the Premier League marked the first realisation from football's overlords that this was a cohesive and marketable product, and should be advertised and understood as such. But English football has had superstars since the days of Billy Meredith, and has worshipped at the altar of the personal narrative ever since.
According to Hemingway, all bad writers are in love with the epic. This because the epic is the easy option; it is simple and stark. It is painted in broad strokes and moves in grand sweeps; it is not constructed to engage or stimulate or but to bludgeon and provoke. It is this mindset that saw one British journalist compare the parched Spaniard to notorious Chelsea flop Chris Sutton. Not entirely out of order, you might suggest, were it not for the fact that this analogy was drawn after Torres had played exactly one game in blue. 66 minutes, and he was already being marked for failure. This is not a healthy culture of reporting.
In fact, judging a footballer after 732 minutes, even one that might normally be expected to score eight goals in that time, is difficult to do with any degree of confidence or justification. Thierry Henry, famously, didn't score for the first eight games of his English career. And, while the analogy isn't perfect -- Henry was coming from Serie A, having played largely on the wing -- it is a constant source of confusion that players moving between English clubs are expected to simply pick up where they left off, as though all football clubs were tactically and emotionally interchangeable.
So. Given that Torres left a team that he was clearly quite emotionally attached to and that had been tactically constructed to maximise his specific abilities, but were halfway through falling apart on and off the pitch; given that he moved to a stuttering team who had played a number of systems this season, none of which appear to have an obvious Torres-shaped hole up front; given that he moved for an eye-wateringly massive albatross of a fee; given that's he played for the last three years solid without a proper summer, occasionally doing so through injury; given that, even when he plays well, he has a certain gauche coltishness, an occasional heaviness of touch that gets elided when the goals are flowing; given that a kindly eye would point to two wrongly disallowed goals, one slapped home with a disdainful thrike, the other a tidy finish after a well-timed run, both of which would have mattered to a more nuanced system of statistical assessment ... given all of this overlong sentence, it seems almost churlish bang on about the lack of goals. It's a wonder he's remembered how to put his boots on.
Torres may fail. But it will not be an epic fail. Like all football failures, it will be a failure composed of many small reasons, personal and circumstantial, all interlinked and intertwined, plus luck. Recourse to the language of the epic may allow for the media-serving inflation of the narrative, but it strips the discourse of subtlety and, ultimately, of value. Torres, his team-mates, and Chelsea's fans can be glad that Saturday's torrential rain provided a suitably biblical end to the drought. The rest of us can be glad that, for the moment at least, the dread momentum of the contrived epic will be given a bit of a rest.
At least until he scores three in three, and becomes once again the greatest player in the history of the world ever. FACT.