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How long will Torres' form last?

Fernando Torres (REUTERS/Stefan Wermuth)
Fernando Torres has scored four goals in seven appearances this season.
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Leander Schaerlaeckens

Leander Schaerlaeckens has written about soccer for The New York Times, The Guardian, ESPN The Magazine and World Soccer. Follow him on Twitter.

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WORLD CLASS

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“Goals,” scoring machine Ruud van Nistelrooy once advised struggling young teammate Gonzalo Higuain, “are like ketchup.”

“Sometimes, as much as you try, it doesn’t come out. And then it comes all at once.”

Since their chat, Higuain’s cup runneth over with ketchup. After scoring just twice as a 19-year-old Real Madrid newbie in the 2006-07 season, when van Nistelrooy joined Real fresh off a 5-year, 150-goal scoring spree with Manchester United, Higuain has scored more than a hundred of his own.

Scoring goals, like pouring ketchup, is a matter of momentum. A critical mass of crushed tomato and vinegar sludge slides down the bottle neck under the heft of its own weight. Or confidence, skill and service conspire to put the ball into the net.

Just ask Fernando Torres.

For five seasons El Niño – “The Kid” – lit up the Spanish league for Atlético Madrid, bagging an average of 15 league goals per season. He continued his goal-scoring ways when he joined Liverpool at age 23 in 2007. With his size, speed and skill, a Euro 2008-winning tally for Spain and 65 league goals in just three and a half seasons in the Barclays Premier League, in spite of a spate of injuries, he was probably the world’s best striker. In January 2011, he joined Chelsea for some $80 million. And then – the story is well-worn by now – the scoring stopped.

The pressure on a recruit with a price tag like Torres’s to score his first goal is irrationally immense. It took Torres almost three months, encompassing 903 minutes of game action, to score his first Chelsea goal. He scored his second nearly five months after that, well into the next season. Then, between October 19, 2011 and March 18, 2012, another five-month stretch, he went 24 games without scoring. He whiffed and scuffed and hesitated and misdirected. Once sure and graceful and effortless in his finishing, he grew indecisive and clumsy. Benched and mocked, his worth to Chelsea was now pegged at close to zero.

“He has a psychological problem and only Fernando can unlock it,” Torres’s Chelsea manager Roberto Di Matteo said in March, days before the Spanish striker broke his spell. “He must not think about how much he cost the club. He must concentrate on playing and not on scoring, or providing an assist or making a great play every time he touches the ball. He should not think about scoring goals, only about playing simple football. The rest will take care of itself.”

However unhelpful Di Matteo’s comments may have been, Torres recovered – a feat as remarkable as the sudden collapse of his numbers.

For a striker in a fluid sport that defies statistical definition, goals are the only measure of success. This exacerbates the pressure to score, the definitive and defining act in the sport.

Scoring droughts can prove a self-fulfilling prophesy. Players fear the day they stop scoring; put such pressure on themselves that they overthink and overplay their chances; consequently and inevitably stop scoring; worry that they’ll never score again; overthink and overplay some more. The vicious cycle accelerates as a player vanishes into the depths of a slump. Some never resurface.

But throughout his epic swoons, Torres often played well. He made himself useful on the right wing during Chelsea’s run to the 2011-12 Champions League title, creating a bevy of chances, and seemed to have everything going for him save for a little luck.

Fans don’t care. They only count goals. And without them , the pressure mounts.

Now-retired Dutch striker Patrick Kluivert once complained that he had a good first season with AC Milan in 1997-98. He’d just failed to score more than six times. “All they count is the amount of times the ball connects with the net,’ he despaired. Milan summarily sold the non-scoring striker to Barcelona. There, Kluivert adorned his clean slate with a substantial 15 league goal average over six seasons.

England striker Emile Heskey eclipsed the 10-goal threshold just once in a 16-year Premier League career and once suffered through a 40-game, 14-month scoring drought. He famously went years without scoring for England, netting just seven goals in 62 appearances, a seemingly abysmal yield for which he was much-derided. The Sun once wrote, “If Heskey were paid by the goal he’d be begging in the streets.” But Heskey – whose second middle name is Ivanhoe – was as useful a player to his team as any.

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“Forwards are judged on their goalscoring,” he told the Daily Mail in 2010. “But I like to think I bring a lot more to the game and I do get pleasure from assisting. I also get pleasure from being part of a winning side.”

And he was often that. A formidable target man, Heskey’s hold-up play enabled goals for whoever played beside him – first Michael Owen and later Wayne Rooney. In fact, England’s forward line hasn’t functioned quite so well since the non-scoring Heskey faded from it.

Yet Heskey, who now plays in Australia, is remembered only for not scoring.

With the dawn of a new season, building on a strong finish to the last and benefiting from the departure of rival Didier Drogba, Torres started scoring again. Seven games into the Premier League season, just five players have tallied more goals than his four. The bounces now go his way. He has reclaimed his confidence. Scoring comes naturally again, its mysticism having embraced him anew.

Suddenly, he is seen as having come good on his transfer fee. He is a world-class striker once more.

Until he stops scoring again.

Amy Lawrence is a contributing writer for FOXSoccer.com who has been writing about the game since USA `94, covering the Premier League, Champions League, European leagues and international soccer.

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