It has not all been smooth sailing for Pau Torres at Aston Villa. His debut ended in a 5-1 loss to Newcastle. He has been partly at fault for goals against Crystal Palace, when he was turned by Jean-Philippe Mateta, and Wolves, when he lost Pedro Neto.
But four months on from his £45m arrival from Villarreal, with Aston Villa three points off the Premier League summit, the feeling among fans is that the centre-back, reunited with his former boss Unai Emery, has been every bit as much of a coup as they hoped.
It is partly down to how he has responded to those setbacks. The loss at St James’ Park, which saw Torres thrown on for the injured Tyrone Mings in the first half, was immediately shaken off. So too the error against Palace as he helped Villa fight back to win 3-1.
The pattern was even clearer against Wolves, when, within two minutes of the error which allowed Neto to create the opening goal, Torres was up at the other end scoring Villa’s equaliser.
Those who know him best would expect nothing different. His even temperament has long been seen one of his main strengths. At Villarreal, he was viewed as being level-headed to an almost comical extent. He made a similar impression on loan at Malaga.
“In bad moments, in good moments, he always had a good balance emotionally,” Alvaro Reina Gomez, former assistant at Malaga, tells Sky Sports. “He has everything under control and doesn’t make himself crazy with any situation. It is a very important skill.”
That “skill”, as Gomez terms it, shines through in the way he plays. Torres is a defender first and foremost, but he is also an outstanding passer; unflappable on the ball and ambitious in the way he uses it.
“What he has is very difficult to find,” says Emery.
The Aston Villa boss viewed the arrival of the 26-year-old as vital to the evolution of his team and explained his reasoning after the 1-0 win over Chelsea in September. “We needed from him the skill to build up with the goalkeeper and combine with the midfielders.”
Ollie Watkins’ winner that day at Stamford Bridge came from a rapid counter-attack. Villa’s third goal in last weekend’s 3-1 win over Fulham, again converted by Watkins following a quick turnover, was another example of their threat from those situations.
Emery’s side have made the most fast breaks in the Premier League this season, according to Opta. They also rank top for direct attacks, further highlighting their threat in transition.
But, with Torres installed at the base of the team, they are now capable of hurting opponents in different ways too. His composed and varied distribution has made them a more complete outfit.
His influence can be seen in the statistics.
This season, only six Premier League players have attempted more passes. Torres ranks 15th for passes into the final third and third among centre-backs behind only Joachim Andersen and Lewis Dunk.
He is one of the most effective players in the division when it comes to breaking lines and bypassing opposition defenders. Crucially, he is able to do it even in difficult circumstances.
Only Tottenham’s Cristian Romero has made more forward passes under pressure this season. Torres’ average of eight per 90 minutes is by far the highest of any Villa centre-back either this term or last, including Mings, who remains absent with a knee injury.
That last statistic is particularly significant given the ultimate purpose of playing out from the back is to draw the other team upfield and create space to exploit in attacking areas.
Press-resistant defenders are needed to do it effectively and Torres is certainly that. Villa are now able to play out from the back with increasing regularity. Emiliano Martinez is sending 70 per cent of his passes short compared to 53 per cent last term.
The goalkeeper is not the only one. Villa are making considerably more short passes as a collective. Their passing sequences are longer. They are making roughly 50 per cent more build-up attacks.
Aston Villa’s varied threat
Aston Villa are one of only four Premier League sides, along with Manchester United, Chelsea and Tottenham, to rank in the top seven for both direct attacks and build-up attacks this season.
Last season, they only scored one goal following a build-up of more than 10 passes. This season, they have already scored four, including 19-pass and 18-pass goals against Luton and Burnley respectively.
Unsurprisingly, Torres was heavily involved in both, probing first right and then left before Moussa Diaby’s goal against Luton, then providing the catalyst for Matty Cash’s second against Burnley with an incisive reverse pass through the lines to Watkins.
Passes such as that are his trademark and they were honed during his time on loan at Malaga, where he excelled to such an extent in Spain’s second tier that his boyhood club Villarreal deemed him ready to be a starter in La Liga immediately afterwards.
“He had a really good pass in the pocket and a very good long ball looking for runs in behind, but we worked with him on the diagonal pass on the grass,” recalls Gomez of that 2018/19 season.
“Often, when you need to break lines, the opponents can all be in the same corridor, and you need to switch the game to the other side. A player will always look to the furthest team-mate with a long ball, but sometimes you need to try a shorter, diagonal pass into the pocket on the other side.
“It’s a difficult pass, but if you can find that gap when the opponent moves to one side to press, it’s very useful because you break the line and it’s difficult for the opposition to move back to recover.
“Pau worked really well on that. You see it now in many games with Aston Villa and the Spanish national team.”
The examples can in fact be found in almost every Aston Villa game.
Torres’ capacity to progress the ball upfield is not limited to his passing. Indeed, when he is not picking out team-mates ahead of him, the Spaniard is carrying the ball forward himself.
His carrying ability is in fact unrivalled in the Premier League. According to Opta, his total carry progress stands at 2,344 meters this season, putting him well clear of Manchester City’s Ruben Dias in second place and providing another invaluable asset to Emery.
His early defensive errors showed the challenge of adapting to the Premier League – and indeed of covering for marauding left-back Lucas Digne – but Torres is as intelligent off the ball as he is on it. It explains why, despite not being the quickest or most physically dominant, he is able to excel in a defensive line as high as Villa’s.
Emery asks his defenders to play with huge spaces behind them but the effectiveness of the strategy can be seen in how frequently they catch their opponents offside. This season, their total stands at 58, putting them 20 clear of any other Premier League side.
The approach demands another quality Torres offers in abundance.
“Most centre-backs in the Premier League are so quick, but Pau has another really important skill,” explains Gomez. “We talk about his technical qualities, but his anticipation is also really good.
“He reads the game. He is capable of knowing what will happen in the next second, before it happens. He is always in good positions, ready to run back, but also capable of staying high. He knows when it’s possible a centre-forward will run behind him and when not.”
His capacity to think one step ahead can also be seen in how he uses the ball after winning possession. His tackles have generated chances worth 1.60 expected goals this season. It is the second-highest total in the Premier League after Wolves’ Nelson Semedo.
It helps, of course, that he has arrived at Villa Park with an existing familiarity of what his manager expects. Torres spent two-and-a-half years under Emery at Villarreal, winning the Europa League in 2021.
He has adapted quicker than his manager expected, but it is not the first time he has shone in unfamiliar surroundings.
Gomez witnessed the same thing first-hand at Malaga, where a young Torres swapped the small crowds of Villarreal B for the pressure cooker of La Rosaleda stadium seamlessly.
“The change between the third and second divisions in Spain is very big,” says Gomez. “Malaga is a club expected to be promoted. You have 30,000 supporters every game, pushing you. It’s a difficult scenario for a 21-year-old. Every pass you miss is a problem.
“But then you have a player like Pau, capable of playing well even in that context, of supporting the other players in a calm way. Sometimes, even the most experienced players are incapable of that. For Pau, it was natural.”
It all comes back to the emotional balance now showing at Aston Villa. “He is someone who doesn’t have any problems, even in the worst scenarios,” concludes Gomez. Emery’s side, evolving tactically and three points off the top, are all the better for it.
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