GDANSK, POLAND - JUNE 10: Fernando Torres of Spain looks on during the UEFA EURO 2012 group C match between Spain and Italy at The Municipal Stadium on June 10, 2012 in Gdansk, Poland. (Photo by Jasper Juinen/Getty Images)
Fernando Torres might have been a disappointment for Spain against Italy, but there's no doubt that his introduction made them a better team.
For 74 minutes, Spain was flat. Sure, the team had scored a goal through Cesc Fabregas, who was operating as a nominal centre forward, but that seemed more like a retaliatory spasm to Antonio di Natale's opener rather than a coherent part of Vicente del Bosque's grand strategy.
Until Fabregas broke from right to left, was picked out by a sublime reverse pass from David Silva and tucked a tidy first-time finish past Gianluigi Buffon, Spain's chances were incidental, the result of unlucky bounces catching Italy out of position rather than by brilliant play.
That's not to say that there wasn't some pretty football played by Spain, but it was, depressingly, played only in a narrow band in midfield. This is what happens when you field as many playmakers as possible -- the instinct is to drop back towards the ball, because they want to be on the ball. No matter where you put a player on the pitch, no matter what instructions you give, he'll still be the same player, with the same habits and tendencies.
And Cesc Fabregas is a midfielder. So too is Andres Iniesta. David Silva's an odd case, but nobody's going to mistake him for a centre forward anytime soon. Spain had no attacking thrust whatsoever.
It rather resembled a swarm of angry bees, actually. There'd be all sorts of ferocious, misdirected buzzing (this, apparently, was entertaining) near the centre of the pitch, where Queen Xavi abided, but once you got far enough away from the hive the pressure dissipated, leaving Daniel de Rossi and Andrea Pirlo to do pretty much whatever they liked. That was fairly problematic, because it allowed Italy to boss the game without worrying much about Spain actually attacking them.
Which is why del Bosque finally bit the bullet and introduced Fernando Torres.
Torres, of course, has had a problematic last few years. He's been off form since the 2010 World Cup, where it was David Villa who carried Spain to glory, and following a big-money move to Chelsea, the former Liverpool man has become something of a punchline. His finishing has been highly suspect, his first touch frankly worrying, and at times he looked like he had stolen a world-class striker's face and body and wasn't quite sure what to do with it.
The 28 year old has regained some form over the past few months, however, and his performances with Chelsea were enough to at least bring him back into the Spain conversation thanks to the absence of Villa and with Fernando Llorente only partially fit. He's obviously not the first choice -- del Bosque's decision to play no striker rather than Torres is testament to that -- but there's enough loyalty to the man who lit up this tournament four years ago that he's being given another chance.
What did he do with it? Most will focus, one would imagine, on the blown chances. The missed one-on-one where Gianluigi Buffon managed to tackle him after a poor first touch. The indecision in possession that broke up a Spanish attack. An attempted lob that sailed well over the bar. That's fair enough, and his recent track record suggests that criticising him for poor play is completely valid. But what's missed when you just look at what Torres did when he was on the ball is how much better Spain was after he came on. The team finally had a focal point for all that pretty play. It had a route to goal.
Torres may have problems right now, but his direct, intelligent running gave his team an option it simply didn't have without him on the pitch. The relatively immobile Italy back line wasn't seriously tested until the substitution, making a jury-rigged three-man defense look like world beaters. Following Torres' introduction, Italy was finally exposed. His movement confounded, frightened and came close to beating them.
Of course, the point of creating chances is to finish them, and Torres didn't manage to do that. There are still serious questions about his confidence and ability at this point, and del Bosque cannot simply ignore them (nor has he). But what the match against Italy taught us is that Spain still needs Torres in order to break down defenses. With that in mind, it's not clear whether his up and down performance was promising -- or deeply, deeply scary.