Despite being highly rated, neither Pau Torres or Diego Carlos have played much competitive football for Aston Villa yet. Hence the dilemma.
In 1935, Austrian physicist Erwin Schrödinger came up with a theory. The line of thinking goes, that if you place a hypothetical cat in a hypothetical box, alongside something that could hypothetically kill said cat, then you would not know whether the cat was alive or dead until you opened the box.
It’s a paradox. As the cat is both dead and alive until it’s actually observed.
So what exactly does this have to do with Aston Villa?
Well, imagine for a moment that Erwin Schrödinger was still alive. And imagine that, instead of lending his considerable intellect to the plight of theoretical felines he used it to consider Aston Villa’s current defensive situation. Then you might be in a situation where you are discussing Schrödinger’s centre-back.
Can Aston Villa fly without Mings?
In an announcement that no one was surprised to read, Aston Villa confirmed on Monday that Tyrone Mings would be out for a significant period of time after suffering what looked like a season-ending injury at Newcastle on Saturday.
I wrote at the weekend about how important the big centre half is to the way in which Unai Emery plays, and just how much he will be missed this season. But while Tyrone leaves a sizeable pair of boots to fill, you could easily argue that it’s an injury in an area where the Claret and Blue are particularly well stocked.
After all, during the past two summers, Villa have spent a combined £59 million on centre-backs with Diego Carlos and Pau Torres making their way to B6. Both were highly touted, both were courted by some of the biggest clubs in Europe, and both represented something of a coup for a club of our standing.
In theory then, Emery’s side should be able to easily absorb the devastating loss of their talismanic number five. The problem is however that neither Torres or Carlos have actually completed more than two games of competitive football for their new employers.
A paradoxical pairing
Because we’ve yet to actually see them enjoy a run of games in Aston Villa colours, both Torres and Carlos exist in a state of paradoxical flux. Like Schrödinger’s cat, they are both the answer to our defensive woes and a further cause of them. But until we actually open the box, we simply don’t know whether they will be able to deliver the defensive solidity the Villans so desperately need.
The trouble with Torres
With Pau Torres things are at least a little clearer. The former Villareal man has more than 242 professional appearances to his name. He has won the Europa League and featured for his country. In many ways, the elegant left-sided centre-back can be seen as a long-term replacement for Tyrone Mings.
So shouldn’t Torres slot seamlessly into the spot Tyrone has vacated?
In theory yes. But we simply don’t know how Torres will adapt to Premier League life until he’s had a run of games. Certainly the 60-odd minutes he played against Newcastle weren’t enough to judge whether he is ready to step into the Villa backline. Nor was a pre-season in which he was regularly fielded as a sort of wide-centre-back / fullback.
There are also concerns about his profile. For all his talents (of which he has many), there are fears that Torres lacks the physical edge that the Premier League demands. A Rolls Royce of a defender, in every stereotypical sense of the word, there’s a belief in some quarters that our new number 14 needs a physical presence next to him. A muscular Ying to his serene Yang if you will.
Aston Villa had that in Mings, and possibly might in Carlos. But his most likely partner, Ezri Konsa, is yet to show the kind of edge that would suggest he’s ready to take on that role.
The Carlos conundrum
Pau Torres isn’t the only centre-back that has been signed to replace Mings. Last summer managerial caricature Steven Gerrard was clear that the Brazilian was coming to Villa Park to take Big Ty’s spot in the team.
Over the course of a nomadic career that has taken him from Sao Paulo to Sevilla via Nantes and Porto, Carlos has built a reputation as a ferocious competitor. Good in the air, aggressive in the tackle, excellent with the ball at his feet and comfortable playing on the left side – the 31-year-old is the best like-for-like replacement for Mings that Emery has at his disposal.
There’s just one small issue. Carlos is only just coming back from his own horrible injury himself, an Achilles tendon tear that meant he spent the majority of last season on the physio’s table.
Even though he’s got a solid pre-season under his belt, Diego Carlos’ lack of first-team football is a problem. Like Torres, we simply don’t know how he’ll perform at Premier League level. There are also question marks over his fitness. A ruptured Achilles is a horrible injury for any player. And while Carlos should be commended for his rapid recovery, it’s the kind of setback that can have a long-term impact on a player’s career – especially those that are the wrong side of 30.
The hope for Aston Villa fans is that Diego Carlos can join the ranks to reclamation projects that have rotated through the Lions’ defensive line over the years. Players like Paul McGrath and Martin Laursen have made a mockery of their injury records, fighting their way back from similar afflictions to enjoy some of the best football of their careers.
It’s time to open the box
The good news is that we won’t have to wait long for the metaphorical cat to be let out of the metaphorical bag. Unai Emery’s men play five matches in the next 15 days, beginning with Everton’s visit to Villa Park this Sunday.
Unlike Schrödinger’s cat, which we can only assume is still stuck inside its hypothetical box, fans will get to see exactly what Villa’s centre-backs are made of and whether they’re ready to shore up a backline that looked woeful in the second half against Newcastle.
Will it be Torres? Will it be Carlos? Will it be both with Konsa moving to a quasi-rightback role? Come Sunday afternoon we’ll have the answer to a question that could come to define our 2023/24 campaign.
Until then, however, Aston Villa’s centre-back situation will remain as paradoxical as an imaginary kitty in a conceptual cardboard box.