x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Bashful Torres has everyone talking

Fernando Torres has just released a book, although the publisher's PRs are unlikely to enjoy this admission: "To be honest, I thought I had nothing to say."

At 25, Fernando Torres is already one of Europe's most feared strikers.
At 25, Fernando Torres is already one of Europe's most feared strikers.

Fernando Torres has just released a book, although the publisher's PRs are unlikely to enjoy this admission: "To be honest, I thought I had nothing to say." When asked about why he has put his story out in print, the Liverpool striker admits demand, rather than any desire to get something off his chest, was the driving force behind the decision. "Well, it's normal for players in England to write books," laughs Torres.

"Everyone has been asking me to write one: after matches, after training when I sign autographs. I can be very shy. I really like to stay at home with my people because I'm really shy; my wife is as well, we're both really shy. "But I think we decided to write a book because the Liverpool fans wanted it. So here it is. I hope people enjoy it; but I will keep being shy, I can tell you that." He may be shy, but the Spanish striker has little difficulty expressing himself on the field of play.

"I like to play. It doesn't matter if it's just me up front on my own, or alongside another striker. I always want to play in the first XI. As a kid it was the same." Torres, 25, arrives for the interview sporting the kind of black eye you would not normally expect to see on a shy and retiring man - but it is obvious that for an elite sportsman to succeed at the top in his chosen profession there must be a fierce competitive edge burning deep within him. And despite his off field demeanour, there is another side to Fernando Torres: "I'm a quiet guy," he shrugs, "but on the pitch it's different. You have to do everything you can to win and help your teammates."

Those of us who enjoy our Premier League football from the safety of the stands or the sofa might be wondering what there is to enjoy about taking a regular bruising every weekend: "I don't know," says Torres, "I was always fighting with everyone when I was a kid. I was playing with people two or three years older than me and I had to survive. So I love the physical game, the contact. And I don't know why but I think football is like this. It is not just touching the ball and stringing together 50 pretty passes consecutively. You have to fight - and it is like a war sometimes."

However, it is clear that Torres does not have a win at any cost approach to the game. A number of recent incidents in sport have placed the issue of cheating very much under the spotlight, with accusations that foreign players coming into the Premier League are somehow responsible for a perceived increase in attempts to gain an advantage by fair means or foul. Cultural differences between British and imported notions of gamesmanship are at the centre of the debate: something that Torres is acutely aware of after being given specific instructions by Rafa Benitez, when he first signed for Liverpool, to change the way he plays and stay on his feet more than he did at Atletico Madrid.

Torres has cut that side out of his game, but with the authorities current focus on diving, is this something that can play on a strikers mind when the tackles are flying in? "Not especially," says Torres. "I have to be focused on my game and forget about the referee and the opponent. I have changed how I play because it's completely different. "In Spain maybe the teams build up play more slowly, with the emphasis on quality, whereas here in England it's very quick, it's more physical. But here the defenders are more honest. They're fighting for the ball, but they are honest. They are trying to fight just to keep the ball. That doesn't always happen in Spain.

"Here in England normally you can fight with the defenders and play on, but in Spain every touch the striker makes on the defender is a foul against you. So it's difficult for the striker there, because you cannot touch the defender and he can do everything to you. Here in England you can fight and I really like this type of football." His appreciation of this honesty combined with the way he has adapted to suit uniquely English attitudes of fair play is, perhaps, one of the reasons why Torres has earned the respect and admiration of rival fans in a way that other high-profile foreign players, like Chelsea's Didier Drogba and Cristiano Ronaldo when he was at Manchester United, have not.

"I don't know. I think players have to show respect to everyone, not just the fans of their own team. They have to show respect to fans of every team because we have lots of cameras recording us and all the kids are doing everything that we do. "We have to be an example to the kids especially and we have to show ourselves to the rest of the world. That is where respect is important, being honest and trying to play football as a sport, to be enjoyed - not doing the other things. I think the main thing for a footballer is being a good example for the rest."

Some might say that footballers are not there to provide examples to the rest of us, that they are there to entertain us, to play sport. And, on the field of play, there are few finer examples of a pure striker than Fernando Torres. As he explains, that means "playing on the shoulder of the centre backs, because when I played for Atletico I was often playing close to the wingers. I feel that a striker like me has to play inside the area, because almost all the goals I score are from there, close to the six-yard box".

Playing the game in enemy territory and so close to their defenders effectively means going head to head against opposition centre halves, and for Torres that means knowing his enemies as well as anyone else. "We have to watch videos before games and study the strengths and weaknesses of defenders," he adds. "Against players like Nemanja Vidic, John Terry and Rio Ferdinand, there is not a single weakness, so to try to go against them and beat them - it is difficult. They are among the best defenders in the world and you have to play almost the perfect game to get the better of them.

"Sometimes it happens, like it did against Vidic last season [in Liverpool's 4-1 victory at Old Trafford which saw the Manchester United defender sent off]." And are there defenders Torres has never managed to get the better of? "I don't know, "he replies. "Last season we beat Chelsea, Man Utd and Arsenal, but there are always some defenders who make it really hard for you. The Aston Villa defenders, for me, were really difficult. I don't know why. I have never had a good game against them because they are very, very aggressive and are almost doing man-to-man [marking] over the whole pitch. I hope we can win away against them because at home we lost 3-1. They are probably the hardest defenders for me."

However, after having scored 44 goals in 64 league games for Liverpool, averaging a goal every 123 minutes, Fernando Torres has clearly found a way of getting the better of most English defences and is a natural Premier League striker. "I think I have to play to my strengths and to be honest I don't know how to play in another position. Where I play is the right position for me because I don't have the same qualities as Stevie [Gerrard] to play between the lines, or coming in from the wing to the middle like Yossi [Benayoun] does. I think that for me - and players like Adebayor or Drogba - this is the right position.

"If players like me play on the wing or between the lines, we aren't as effective as when we are in a striking position. I have to say 'OK, I'm not the best between the lines, I have to play up front and scoring goals'." To football's uninitiated, if a player like Torres is not scoring goals, he is not playing well. Yet, as Liverpool's recent game against Burnley demonstrates, Torres still has much to contribute, even when he does fail to get on the scoresheet. His presence up front led to him being double marked by the opposition's defenders, benefiting the team in ways that go unseen to the untrained eye, with Kuyt and Benayoun reaping the benefit in Liverpool's 4-0 win.

"Yes but this is the life of the striker. Sometimes you might be having a very bad game, but you score one or two goals and people will say that you played really well. On the other hand, against Burnley for example, you have to work for the team and stay up as high as you can, keep the centre back busy and leave a space between the lines. "Normally the midfielders or the wingers score in these types of games because they can approach the space. For me, if the team can win, I am doing my job. Sometimes I can score thanks to the work of another teammate - and sometimes my teammates can score because of my work."

However, Torres cannot help but give away what gives him the greatest satisfaction: "I am doing the job the boss is telling me to do and I am happy because he is happy," he says, "but I would rather score a couple of goals, I can tell you!" Following the departure of Xabi Alonso to Real Madrid in the summer, it is possible that the rest of the team might find themselves looking to Torres for inspiration, as well as for goals. Does Torres feel he must take greater responsibility as a senior figure in the squad?

"Well I think the leaders of the team are Stevie [Gerrard] and Carra [Jamie Carragher]. That's how it is. Plus Pepe Reina is the third oldest player in the squad and a strong person in the dressing room. He's important for the team. "We have players like Kuyt who has also been a lot of years in the club. Not me. I feel I still have to learn from my teammates and just play football. I don't want more responsibility than to score goals."

Following a couple of disappointing results, Liverpool have since found greater consistency - while on a personal level, one would expect Torres to be satisfied with his goalscoring contribution so far, having scored five goals in five league games already this season. "I'm really happy with my work, but I know I can improve and score goals in almost every game again," he adds. "If the team are winning - the job is done. After the last few games we have confidence that any player can score."

There is a widely held misconception in England that without Torres, Liverpool struggle to score goals, yet with a further five players contributing the Spaniard's goals this season, bringing the club's tally to 16 in five games, the reality is somewhat different: even the summer's new recruit, defender Glen Johnson, provides an additional goal threat. "It's a very positive thing," explains Torres, "because it means we don't depend on just one or two players. When you know your right full- back can score goals, it's great news for you. Johnson has scored two, Kuyt can always score, Benayoun has scored goals and obviously Gerrard does as well. If we can get some more players scoring, it's really nice for the team because the opposition have to worry about the whole team.

"We have to improve on our games at home, especially agai- nst teams from the bottom or mid-table. We dropped a lot of points in those matches in the past, but now we are doing well in those types of games. "These games are the key for us: We have to get maximum points against weaker teams and be more offensive in those games. Then, when we play Chelsea and Man Utd. We'll see what happens." The implication, then, that if Liverpool can pick up more points against their rivals for the title, then the Premier League trophy is within their sights.

And beyond that, for Torres, the World Cup in South Africa, a tournament he believes Spain can win. What better way to round off the season than locking horns with his club captain and player he as the most respect for, Steven Gerrard. "We have to be quiet and show respect to the other teams and see what happens. We go step by step and hopefully we can play in the final against England," says Torres. And, with a grin lighting up his face, he concludes: "It would be nice to line up against Stevie in the final."

gballague@thenational.ae