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Pau Torres can be the perfect centre-back for Unai Emery’s Aston Villa

The Spaniard has a real claim to be one of the world’s best progressive ball-playing CBs.

Pau Torres, Sevilla FC v Villarreal CF Photo by Fran Santiago/Getty Images

While his tactics, player management, and regard for supporters was lacking, Steven Gerrard’s banner signing of Boubacar Kamara last summer highlighted the pull that a celebrity manager can have in the transfer market. If there were any concerns that the manager draw was lost upon Gerrard’s exit, they can now be put to bed with Aston Villa and Unai Emery’s signing of left-footed centre-back Pau Torres.

As has been widely reported, the 26-year-old Spaniard has chosen to reunite with Unai Emery at Villa despite rumblings of a swoop from Bayern Munich that felt more baseless media speculation than fact. Bayern may have leveraged that rumor to get Napoli to accept their bid for Kim Min-jae, which then cleared the path for Villa to secure their man. The deal for Torres looks even better as Villa are expected to pay in the range of £35-40 million, well below the £50+ million that was initially expected. Torres adds some real depth to the back line and Villa fans are justifiably excited to see him in claret and blue.

However, the signing of Torres also raises. What happens to the Ezri Konsa and Tyrone Mings partnership? Could Villa play with a back three? What about Diego Carlos? There are no definitive answers yet, but by looking at what Torres excels at, perhaps some of those questions can be answered.

If you read our Youri Tielemans analysis, you’ll remember we went deep into how progressive passing and carries were his bread and butter. Not to sound like a broken record, but Torres excels at the same things. The key difference is that while Tielemans is well above-average at them, Torres is in a category of his own

Let’s start with passing. Opta puts Tielemans in the 84th percentile of midfielders across all leagues in progressive passing. Pretty good.

Torres is in the 96th percentile of progressive passing for CBs. He was 10th-best across all players and all positions in La Liga last season and the number-one centre-back. He was also seventh overall in La Liga for passes into the final third. Again, the number one CB.

His ability to switch the field is also something Villa don’t currently have. A switch is defined as any pass going at least 40 yards in width of the pitch. Torres played 49 switches last year. For some perspective, that’s more than double the number Mings and Konsa played. Combined.

And then there’s progressive carries. This is not an exaggeration: he’s probably the best CB in the world at this. Opta has him in the 99th percentile. Torres has led all La Liga CBs in progressive carry distance two seasons in a row, and he did that despite missing five league games each of those seasons.

Last season, Lewis Dunk led the entire Premier League with 6,327 yards of progressive carry distance. In La Liga, Torres played 185 fewer minutes than Dunk and had 7,623 yards.

These progressive carries also take him farther up the pitch and get him involved in the attack. Torres had nearly the same number of touches in the defensive third as Mings and Konsa but 300 more than either of the duo in the middle third and more than double their total touches in the final third. He had the fifth-most overall touches overall in La Liga last year.

One last thing that bodes well for him (that I’m nervous writing about) is his durability. During his senior career, he has never started fewer than 33 league games per season. In the seasons when Villareal were in the Europa League (2020/21) and then the Champions League (2021/22), he started in all their European games and had 44 and 45 starts in those seasons, respectively.

Pau Torres, Villarreal CF v RCD Espanyol
Pau Torres is the true ball-playing centre-back Villa are looking for.
Photo by Aitor Alcalde Colomer/Getty Images

If there’s something to nitpick, it’s some of his defensive deficiencies. He does not get many interceptions. Per Opta, Torres is in the bottom one per cent of CBs in terms of interceptions. However, this is likely because he is in the 70th percentile of CBs in clearances; he tends to clear his lines rather than risk trying to pick off passes. I think this is ultimately a help to Villa as this can put off counter-attacking teams and give the defence time to reset itself after a clearance.

According to Opta, he’s also in the bottom third of CBs in terms of tackles, blocks, and, surprisingly for his height, aerial duels. But, to be frank, who cares? If anything, I want his numbers in those categories to get even worse because I don’t want him to have to defend a whole lot. I’d rather Villa defend like the best teams do —with possession. Emery wants to build from the back, hold the ball, and score goals, and Torres fits the mould.

So now that Torres is on his way, what does that mean for the squad?

Let’s be clear: Pau Torres is a nailed-on starter for Aston Villa. While the other newbie Tielemans needs to earn his way onto the pitch by proving he belongs there, Torres would have to prove he doesn’t in order to be left out of the XI.

Given that Torres is left-footed, there’s some social media angst that he has been brought in to replace Mings. It can’t be completely ruled out, but I think there’s more nuance to Emery than that. We’ve only seen two formations under Emery: a 4-4-2 that was by season’s end favoured in games where Villa expected to have more possession – Forest (H), Wolves (A), Everton (A) – and the 4-2-3-1 which was mostly used against opponents with more possession threat – Liverpool (A), Manchester United (A), Newcastle (H), Brighton (H).

While it seems hard to imagine, it’s possible Emery could be open to experimenting with three at the back.

There is some precedence for this. Emery did on occasion play with three CBs at Arsenal in the 2018/19 season with some success. Football is also a game of imitations and maybe watching Manchester City dominate with their three-centre-back system has Emery imagining what he could do with an extra midfielder. The prospect of Torres playing LCB, Mings leading from the middle, and Konsa and Carlos fighting it out for the RCB slot is not far-fetched.

Or maybe Emery simply goes rogue and starts two left-footed CBs. OK, maybe that was a bridge too far. Just know that somehow, some way, Pau Torres will be on the pitch for Aston Villa.

It’s hard to imagine a player more fit for what Villa and Emery are trying to accomplish than Torres. There are now four starting-quality centre-backs on the roster, all of whom can push one another to another level. The biggest problem is now having to incorporate and gel the team with a 6’3” CB who dribbles and passes like an elite midfielder. It’s a great problem to have.