Villarreal v Man Utd: Could Pau Torres be Solskjaer's ideal centre-back partner for Maguire?

By Sports Desk May 25, 2021

While it will not be the main item on the agenda, it is fair to say that Manchester United's centre-back strength will be under the microscope in Wednesday's Europa League final against Villarreal.

Of course, any apparent issues at the back will be drowned out – at least initially – if Ole Gunnar Solskjaer guides United to their first piece of silverware during his tenure.

However, as the game approaches, it is at the heart of their defence where United's biggest problem lies, with Harry Maguire unlikely to be fit for the game.

Love him or loathe him, there is little doubt Maguire has been United's best – and certainly most present – centre-back since he joined the club in 2019, with the defeat to his former club Leicester City earlier this month the first Premier League game he had missed for the Red Devils.

He did not feature in any of the final four league fixtures and, even though he has travelled to Gdansk, a starting role seems highly unlikely.

Therefore, it will either be down to former Villarreal man Eric Bailly or Axel Tuanzebe to partner Victor Lindelof – either way, it is hardly the most convincing of partnerships.

If United are to bridge the gap to Manchester City, it has been a long-held belief of many pundits and columnists that centre-back is one of the few areas they have significant room for improvement in, with the options available in Maguire's absence highlighting that.

Up against them on Wednesday will be Pau Torres, a central defender who has been linked with some of the world's biggest clubs, including United. Could he be the long-term answer they are looking for?

The playmaker at centre-back

Maguire has enjoyed a solid season for United, his influence at the back made all the more notable in the two matches they have lost without him. The main question mark is over the man next to him, which is usually Lindelof.

For a period last year, it appeared as though United would try to bring in a left-footed centre-back to partner Maguire, who would be allowed to shift back to the right side of the pairing.

Nathan Ake seemed an obvious candidate given Bournemouth's relegation and the fact Solskjaer appeared to indicate his interest in the Dutchman after a game against the Cherries – his comments caught by a nearby television camera.

He went to Manchester City instead, but Torres has a similar profile in that he is a left-footed centre-back who is praised for his ability on the ball.

Playing out from the back has been a frequent aspect of United's play under Solskjaer, and Torres would certainly fit in – his tally of 747 forward passes in LaLiga this term were bettered by only Jules Kounde (918) and Clement Lenglet (812) in terms of fellow defenders.

Where he does better than both, however, is bringing the ball out of defence. His 432 progressive carries – movements that take the ball more than five metres upfield – is 42 more than any other LaLiga defender, while he has carried the ball 4,784.4 metres up the pitch, again a high for the league.

This has even translated into having an attacking influence, with his two assists at the end of a carry only bettered by Jose Gaya – a full-back – among defenders. In fact, he's the only centre-back to get more than one assist in this fashion.

It all demonstrates how useful and reliable Torres can be for a team that wants to build from deep. Stylistically at least, it would seem the Spain international could be a great fit for United.

Room to grow, or not enough of an upgrade?

Despite the acclaim Torres has received over the past two seasons, there are those unconvinced by some of his defensive skills.

He has been accused of being too prone to making snap decisions, which does not tend to bring positive results for him in one-on-one situations, while it has also been pointed out that his communication with a partner can be poor, especially when it comes to offside traps.

The other potential issue is, while Torres is undoubtedly a wonderful player technically and arguably the most gifted centre-back in that regard in Spain, his weaknesses are similar to those already seen from Lindelof during his time at Old Trafford.

The problem many have with Lindelof is that he too often appears uneasy in physical confrontations, while also looking uncomfortable against nimble forwards.

Torres is athletic – tall, quick and strong, but he still seems unsure how best to use those physical traits at times, and his defensive numbers are not an upgrade on Lindelof.

The Sweden international averages more aerial challenges (3.5) and aerial wins (2.2) per 90 minutes than Torres (2.7 and 1.7) in the 2020-21 season, while their frequency of being involved in duels is very similar: 5.8 for Lindelof and 5.5 per game for Torres.

Torres does win more of those duels on average (3.4 to 3.3), but the difference is negligible. As for their respective abilities to sniff out danger, Lindelof also comes out on top with regards to interceptions, averaging 1.1 per game to Torres' 0.7.

Such metrics can often be skewed when an individual – in this case Lindelof – is playing for a team expecting to spend more time in possession against most opponents they come up against.

It underlines that Torres is generally a passive centre-back, which is not necessarily a bad thing, as Maguire is rather different, but it is a key aspect United would have to take into consideration if they are to make a move for him.

The caveat for Torres' blind spots, however, is that he is still only 24 and 2020-21 is just his second full season in LaLiga – he does have plenty of time to develop.

His exceptional technical skills at least provide him with a solid platform to build from, but would the other side of his game mean he would be considered an upgrade over Lindelof?

The Europa League final will be his final audition and an opportunity to prove how his strengths outweigh any weaknesses.

Related items

  • 'Unicorn' MVP Ohtani emulates Babe Ruth in World Baseball Classic final 'Unicorn' MVP Ohtani emulates Babe Ruth in World Baseball Classic final

    Shohei Ohtani was described as a "unicorn to the sport" by United States manager Mark DeRosa after he led Japan to victory in the World Baseball Classic final.

    Ohtani struck out Los Angeles Angels team-mate Mike Trout to seal a 3-2 victory in a thrilling conclusion in Miami on Tuesday.

    Named the tournament's MVP, Ohtani ticked off a list of achievements during the game that had only ever previously been matched in an MLB or WBC game by the legendary Babe Ruth in October 1921.

    The 28-year-old started in the batting lineup, drew a walk, got a hit, came on to pitch in relief, struck out a batter and was the finishing pitcher.

    "What he's doing in the game is what probably 90 per cent of the guys in that clubhouse did in Little League or in youth tournaments, and he's able to pull it off on the biggest stages," DeRosa said. 

    "He is a unicorn to the sport. I think other guys will try it, but I don't think they're going to do it to his level.

    "What blows me away on this stage is the fact that no moment is too big for him. He did not seem rattled by walking Jeff McNeil on a close pitch, not rattled that three MVPs were coming up to bat."

    Ohtani himself was happy to accomplish one of his career goals by winning the tournament, and believed the victory over the USA was also proof that Japan can get the better of anyone.

    "In my baseball life, [winning the World Baseball Classic was] one of the things that I wanted to achieve," Ohtani said. "Today I was able to achieve one of the goals.

    "Of course, I happened to get the MVP, but this really proves that Japanese baseball can beat any team in the world."

  • Mancini searching for Italy solutions as Southgate sends England Euros stars back to the well Mancini searching for Italy solutions as Southgate sends England Euros stars back to the well

    "It has now become a 'classico'," said Roberto Mancini ahead of the latest episode of Italy-England.

    Thursday's encounter – which kicks off Euro 2024 qualifying – will be the sides' fourth since Mancini took the Italy job in 2018 and their fifth since Gareth Southgate became England manager in 2016.

    Prior to this match, Southgate has only faced Germany more often, yet the Azzurri are one of just four opponents his England team have played without winning (also France, Colombia and Brazil).

    That sequence of results includes the Euro 2020 final, of course, and so revenge might be on the minds of the Three Lions.

    Of the 16 England players who played some part in that Wembley shoot-out defeat, 14 were named in Southgate's squad for this month's qualifiers. Raheem Sterling – one of the other two – was also name-checked by Southgate, missing due to injury.

    Rather than rebuild his side after coming so close, Southgate has stuck by his trusted lieutenants. He has handed out 20 or more caps to 22 different players across his England tenure and included 17 of those in his latest group – Sterling, again, is one of the other five.

    It figures that Southgate should have faith in the best England side since 1966, even if his predictable squad selections frustrate some supporters.

    Mason Mount and Marcus Rashford subsequently dropped out of the squad but were not replaced, with the manager seemingly reluctant to gamble on the introduction of a new face – particularly at this key juncture at the start of a new cycle.

    "Now you have to start again," Southgate explained last week. "I know exactly where our most senior players are with that challenge: they are ready.

    "The [Jordan] Hendersons, the [Harry] Kanes, they set the tone for that sort of mentality that is going to be needed."

    How Italy would love to have the problems that face Southgate, both in having to rally quickly following a World Cup campaign – one Mancini's men watched from home – and in juggling elite talents and having to shut the door to others.

    Less than two years have passed since Italy won the European Championship, yet the 17 players they used in the final were, on average, two years older than the 16 of England.

    If this is the last run for Southgate and some of his most reliable stars – and it surely is – the same was already true for Italy at the Euros.

    Only nine of those 17 players were retained by Mancini this month, naming a squad that included three teenagers and four uncapped players, along with the returning Matteo Darmian, whose last international outing pre-dates the Azzurri coach.

    Far from confidently regenerating his squad, however, Mancini is casting around for answers. He has capped 88 players in 57 matches; Southgate has capped 88 players in 81 matches.

    Where only five of England's 25-man squad have earned 10 caps or fewer under Southgate, there are 15 in the 30-man Italy group who are yet to reach that milestone under Mancini.

    Of course, that includes Darmian, but it also includes Mateo Retegui, an Argentinian-born, Argentinian-raised and Argentinian-based forward at Tigre.

    While his involvement prompted some controversy, going against Mancini's previous stance on calling up players not born in Italy, the coach explained: "In Italy, there are few. We are worse off than Southgate. If there is a chance to take new players, we take them."

    It is a high-pressure situation Retegui is entering, potentially being tasked with leading the line against the toughest opponents in Italy's group.

    Mancini has acknowledged his team cannot afford a slow start in a "very important" first game as they look to right the wrongs of their previous qualification campaign, but he has been left little choice but to take risks.

    By contrast, getting to major tournaments has not until now been a problem for the risk-averse Southgate.

    A 'classico' in Naples may yet inform the England boss whether that can remain the case with the same group of players at a third straight finals.

  • Toney, Botman... Joselu? The international newcomers out to make an impression Toney, Botman... Joselu? The international newcomers out to make an impression

    The first international window after a major tournament always offers the chance of a reset, with squads freshened up whether teams have failed or triumphed.

    It gives coaches the opportunity to reassess as they build towards the next competition.

    In Europe, qualifying for Euro 2024 begins, so there'll be a competitive edge to the majority of the fixtures.

    It's an ideal time for newcomers to the squads to assert themselves. Here, Stats Perform looks at the players aiming to do just that.

     

    ARGENTINA

    Lionel Messi finally got his hands on the biggest trophy of them all last year, as he led Argentina to World Cup glory in Qatar. Now, Lionel Scaloni will be looking to see what prospects he can bring into the squad as La Albiceleste aim to retain their Copa America title in 2024. Two friendlies against Panama and Curacao should give him the ideal chance to test out some newcomers.

    Nehuen Perez is enjoying a fine season in Serie A with Udinese and will be looking to improve on his one Argentina appearance, while Manchester City youngster Maximo Perrone has received his first international call. Perrone joined City from Velez Sarsfield in January, having only made his professional debut last year.

    BRAZIL

    Like Argentina, Brazil have a friendly – just the one – on the cards this month, though it is against World Cup semi-finalists Morocco. That should prove a tough test for the first match of Ramon Menezes' interim tenure.

    With Brazil still reeling from their quarter-final exit in Qatar, and key players such as Neymar and Richarlison injured, Menezes has named plenty of fresh faces in his squad.

    Among them is Rony, who has already scored six goals for Palmeiras in 2023, following a haul of 23 last year. Joao Gomes, who joined Wolves in January and has already netted in the Premier League, will also be hoping to make an impression, as will Andrey Santos. The 18-year-old is back on loan at Vasco de Gama from Chelsea but now has a chance to win his first cap.

    ENGLAND

    There were no new call-ups in Gareth Southgate's squad for England's Euro 2024 qualifiers against Italy and Ukraine, but Ivan Toney was something of a surprise inclusion.

    That's not due to Toney's form – only Erling Haaland (28) and Harry Kane (21) have scored more Premier League goals than the Brentford striker (16) this season – but because he is under investigation over an alleged breach of Football Association betting rules.

    Toney was included in Southgate's final squad before the World Cup but did not make the cut for Qatar, and has not yet made a Three Lions appearance. Given his inclusion this time around, the 27-year-old, who has averaged a league goal every 140 minutes this season, will be hoping to make his mark.

    FRANCE

    Kylian Mbappe is the new France captain following Hugo Lloris' international retirement, which has left a spot to fill in goal. Milan's Mike Maignan is the natural successor though has struggled with injury this season. Meanwhile, Brice Samba received his first call-up as one of the three shot-stoppers.

    Samba left Nottingham Forest to join Lens last year and the 28-year-old has impressed in Ligue 1. His 78.1 save percentage is the third-best in the division out of goalkeepers to have played at least five games, while according to Opta's expected goals on target conceded (xGOT) model, he has prevented 5.2 goals, the fourth-best total in France's top tier.

    Khephren Thuram, son of 1998 World Cup winner Lilian Thuram and brother of France striker Marcus Thuram, is having a superb season at Nice and could look to force his way into Didier Deschamps plans for midfield, especially with the injury issues of N'Golo Kante and Paul Pogba.

    GERMANY

    As hosts of next year's Euros, there'll be no competitive matches for Germany this month, though Hansi Flick's team will be looking to atone for their horror show in Qatar. Six uncapped players have been called up by Flick for friendlies against Peru and Belgium, including Milan defender Malick ThiawKevin Schade, on loan at Brentford from Freiburg, is another newcomer in the forward line.

    Marius Wolf has earned his first international opportunity at the age of 27. He has only scored one goal and provided one assist in 24 games this season, so perhaps he won't be the player who goes on to propel Germany to glory in 2024.

    ITALY

    There's three new faces in Italy's squad, though Roberto Mancini has been lamenting what he sees as a lack of homegrown talent at his disposal. Italy, of course, won the delayed Euro 2020, only to then fail to qualify for the World Cup.

    Of the three uncapped players in this selection, Mateo Retegui is certainly one to watch. The 23-year-old, Argentina-born striker holds dual citizenship and plays in the South American nation for Tigre.

    Retegui has scored 29 goals since the start of last season. Wladimiro Falcone and Alessandro Buongiorno are the other players who could win their first caps.

    NETHERLANDS

    Ronald Koeman has given five uncapped players an opportunity to impress in the first squad of his second spell in charge and Sven Botman is undoubtedly the biggest name. The Newcastle United defender was a surprise exclusion from Louis van Gaal's World Cup squad, but the 23-year-old centre-back has been given the nod by Koeman.

    Botman has helped Newcastle keep nine clean sheets in the Premier League, while he has made more blocks (15) than any of his defensive club-mates, though he will be hoping to avoid a mistake such as the one he made to gift Nottingham Forest a goal last week. 

    Xavi Simons, meanwhile, will be looking to make an impact further forward. The 19-year-old has scored 13 goals and provided six assists in the Eredivisie this season.

    SPAIN

    Most of the players on this list are on the younger side, but new Spain coach Luis de la Fuente has handed a first call-up to 32-year-old Joselu.

    The Espanyol forward, previously of Newcastle United and Stoke City, is one of LaLiga's leading scorers this season with 12 goals. Better late than never, perhaps?

    Osasuna's David Garcia is another newcomer, while Real Betis striker Borja Iglesias – who like Joselu has netted 12 times in LaLiga – was called up in place of the injured Gerard Moreno on Sunday.

© 2023 SportsMaxTV All Rights Reserved.