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Why fit-again Torres is the key to Villa’s final push

Ollie Watkins’ double proved decisive in Aston Villa’s 2-1 win over Fulham last weekend. But the return of Pau Torres, following two months out with an ankle injury, was similarly important.

Unai Emery’s side are a different proposition when he is available and their record with and without him this season proves it. When Torres starts, they have a win rate of 76 per cent in the Premier League. When he does not, that number drops to 25 per cent.

His return was well timed given Diego Carlos had joined Ezri Konsa and Tyrone Mings on the injury list. Emery needed Torres to step back in and deliver. Of course, he did just that, bringing his usual poise and showing why his manager trusts him implicitly.

Their relationship seems a good place to start in conversation with Torres at Villa’s training ground. It is, after all, the reason he is here. They won the Europa League together at Villarreal. In July, Emery called him on his honeymoon to discuss the merits of a reunion.

Aston Villa have a 76 per cent win rate in Premier League games with Torres starting
Image: Aston Villa have a 76 per cent win rate in Premier League games with Torres starting

“We were in contact,” Torres tells Sky Sports with a chuckle. “I had to tell him to let us enjoy our holiday, that a honeymoon is something you only experience once in your life, and that we leave it until I was back. He respected that for the days before I came here.”

The anecdote is an insight into the mindset of a manager who “lives football 24 hours a day”, to quote Torres. His presence at Villa Park was a major part of the appeal to the centre-back, whose £45m arrival was confirmed as soon as his honeymoon was over.

“He is a very demanding manager, first of all with himself,” he says. “He is the first one who wants us to get positive results and that energy, that demandingness he has of himself, transmits to all the players. We are kind of infected with his way of seeing football.

“He demands that football is the biggest thing in your life and that you are fully focused on it. As players, we have to take advantage of having a manager like that, who demands so much from us.

“I think we can achieve important things with him.”

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Watch free highlights from Aston Villa’s 2-1 win at Fulham

Torres has, of course, already done that at Villarreal, playing a crucial role in that historic European success under the 52-year-old, then resolving, two years later, that the time was right for a change.

“I felt like, at Villarreal, there wasn’t much more I could do,” he says. “I had achieved my dreams with the club of my life. It was time to accept a new challenge and come to the Premier League.

“I am happy with the step I have taken.”

Everybody associated with Aston Villa feels the same way. The signing felt like a coup at the time and so it has proved. But only after an inauspicious debut against Newcastle in which Torres was thrown on for the injured Mings in a game they went on to lose 5-1.

“That game brought us back to reality because we had had a good pre-season,” he recalls. “To have that result in the first game hurt us. We had to wake up and come back stronger. I think it was a turning point in our work, to ensure the next results were positive.”

Villa won five of their next six games, with Torres ever-present. In fact, before hurting his ankle against Brentford in December, he had not missed a single minute of Premier League action.

Pau Torres celebrates his quickfire equaliser
Image: Torres scored his first Aston Villa goal against Wolves in October

His impact has been transformative.

With his outstanding ball-playing ability added to their backline, a team already deadly in transition is now capable of passing their way through opponents too.

The patient build-up which led to Watkins’ second goal against Fulham, during which Torres could be seen firing a trademark diagonal pass into Youri Tielemans, then dropping a shoulder and carrying the ball past Andreas Pereira, was just the latest reminder.

Last season in the Premier League, Villa only scored one goal from a build-up of 12 or more passes. This term, with the unflappable Torres dictating proceedings, they have already scored seven. They are a more complete side, capable of hurting teams in different ways.

Torres’ composure in possession is captivating. “It is what I was asked to do as a young player in Villarreal’s academy,” he says. “They are a club who work very well in that sense at youth level.

“So, I am used to that way of playing out from the back, of drawing our opponents out and creating spaces to attack more easily. I also think that if I appear calm, the team is going to be more calm and more confident. I think that is good for my team-mates.”

But it is of course a question of quality as well as composure.

Torres has a special talent for threading passes through to his midfielders – no Villa player comes close to his total of 134 passes bypassing four or more defenders this season – and there is range to his distribution too, with only Newcastle’s Fabian Schar making more successful switches of play in the Premier League.

Graphic for feature

Emery loves his willingness to take risks.

“You have to try to overcome the pressure of the other team,” says Torres. “You can always make a mistake. But you can’t be afraid of that. More often than not, when you do it, it turns out well and the team is able to attack more easily.”

Torres’ capacity to break opposition lines is not limited to his passing. His ball-carrying is another weapon. “Of course, if you can find a solution with a pass, it is always better. But in some moments under pressure, you have to dribble past an opponent.”

He appears to do that effortlessly. But playing as a centre-back in this Aston Villa side is a high-wire act out of possession as well as in it. This season, they have caught their opponents offside on a whopping 124 occasions, nearly three times’ the average.

Their aggressively high line is a major feature of their play. But what is it really like, as a centre-back, to play with such huge expanses of open space behind you, with opposition forwards constantly trying to run off your shoulder? And how do Villa make it work?

“The four defenders have to be in constant communication, being careful about our body shape so that we are in a position to run when our opponents make their moves,” explains Torres.

“It is most difficult when an opposing player makes a run from further away, from the second line of attack. Those are the runs we have to have under control most of all. Our goalkeeper also needs to be co-ordinated with us and alert to passes in behind us.”

Anticipation is key and that is another area in which Torres excels. In 17 Premier League starts this season, he has only made 11 tackles, instead using his ability to read the game to eliminate the need. The same instincts are required to combat those runs in behind.

“When the opponent has a passing option, the striker makes his run and he has got away from you, you have to act early to make sure he is offside,” he says. “Although sometimes, of course, you end up having to run back with him towards your goal and deal with the problem in another way.

“It is not exactly that we play for offside. But if we are intelligent and we know how to read the action, we know we can cause the opponent to rush their run and go to soon.”

Graphic for feature
Image: Torres plays as Villa’s left-sided centre-back

The circumstances are especially demanding for Torres, as Villa’s left-sided centre-back, given the need to cover for left-back Alex Moreno, whose remit is to push high up the field as an extra attacker.

“It is what we work on,” smiles Torres. “He has to jump forward in attack and the defenders who stay back have to be vigilant to those spaces. Again, it is about being co-ordinated and anticipating the action the rival might take in that zone, so you can adjust before it happens.”

The complexity of his role can hardly be understated. But Torres speaks about it all matter-of-factly, rejecting the notion that he is key to Villa’s success – “football is about the whole team,” he says – and instead focusing on the challenges that lie ahead.

Villa remain fourth ahead of Saturday’s meeting with Nottingham Forest. Their Champions League destiny is in their hands. But they have not won consecutive Premier League games in two months.

“All teams have highs and lows over the course of the season,” he says. “You have to get out of the lows as quickly as you can.

“I hope that moment has passed for us and from now on we can return to getting positive results because that is what we are working for.”

With Torres fit again, their prospects look far brighter.

Follow Aston Villa vs Nottingham Forest on Sky Sports’ digital platforms from 1.30pm on Saturday; kick-off 3pm; free highlights available from 5.15pm

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