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Pau Torres and Jules Koundé: Walking different paths with the world at their feet

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Two La Liga star center backs seemingly destined for greatness.

Japan v Spain - U-24 International Friendly Photo by Koki Nagahama/Getty Images

As you grow older you realise that life is made up of choices, and those choices are rarely good or bad. They’re different, roads taken and avoided that define futures in subtle but significant ways.

Pau Torres chose one road this summer, and Jules Koundé chose another. The pair are co-existing in the same space right now; two young, mature-beyond-their-years centre-backs on the verge of securing moves to the elite of the elite.

That’s not to dismiss Villarreal or Sevilla, their respective clubs. Sevilla finished fourth in La Liga last season, falling short at the final stretch but maintaining a title challenge to the death. Villarreal performed below expectations domestically, finishing seventh, but offset that by beating Manchester United to win the Europa League.

But they’re not the true elite, and it’s hard to see them ever ascending to that gilded status. The elite is Barcelona and Real Madrid, the moneyed heavyweights of the Premier League, Paris Saint-Germain and Bayern Munich. Platforms that denote status on the footballers they employ, an ability to compete for the biggest honours.

All of that aforementioned cadre would be interested in recruiting both Pau and Koundé. Pau is 24 and six-foot-four. He made 33 league appearances for Villarreal last season, forming a strong partnership at the heart of defence beside the more grizzled Raúl Albiol. He was selected in Luis Enrique’s Spain squad for Euro 2020, expected to start beside Sergio Ramos.

Koundé is 22, and at five-foot-ten is diminutive for a centre-back. He made 34 appearances for Sevilla last season and earned no shortage of plaudits, sitting beside Diego Carlos but also forging forward on searching runs enabled by the defensive nous of Fernando in a pivot in front of the back four. He was also picked to go to Euro 2020, but as a more peripheral member of Didier Deschamps’ star-studded French side.

After excellent seasons, their paths became a little rockier as spring turned to summer. Pau didn’t get to start beside Ramos; the Andalusian was controversially dropped by Luis Enrique due to a lack of match fitness, replaced by the recently-naturalised Aymeric Laporte. That meant that Pau was forced to play beside another left-footer in the most high-pressure environment of his career, an atmosphere intensified by Spain’s slow start.

Two left-footers playing together at centre-back isn’t ideal; it can create moments of confusion when looking to circulate the ball quickly or stepping in to win a tight challenge. Luis Enrique agreed, intermittently alternating Pau with right-footer Eric García, who played too little football last season to have the legs to displace Pau entirely.

Pau didn’t cover himself in glory over the summer, although Spain made it to the semi-final only to lose in a penalty shootout to eventual champions Italy. He didn’t disgrace himself, to be clear, but he didn’t have the breakout tournament that teammate Pedri had.

That’s not his fault; playing at centre-back is dependent on a host of factors, and he wasn’t helped by not being able to cultivate a genuine defensive partnership or the added pressure of effectively being Ramos’ direct replacement.

Koundé also didn’t have a breakout summer, although such a tournament wasn’t expected of him. He made one appearance for France, at right-back, as they crashed out of the competition they were expected to win in the last 16, losing to Switzerland on penalties.

Their modest summers were in many ways conditioned by how they framed them before they began. Koundé made it clear that the time had come for him to begin to evaluate his options; that after two seasons at Sevilla, he was ready to level up.

“Regarding my future, it’s certain that I will perhaps have to change clubs this summer,” he said in comments carried by Football London. “But nothing has been finalised yet. I have not decided anything. My goal is to play for a big club, to try to progress and win trophies.”

Pau, on the other hand, played it cool. Koundé joined Sevilla from Bordeaux, and is renowned for his sangre fría, his cold blood. Pau was born-and-raised in Villarreal, and has connections with the club that go beyond using it as a platform for professional development. Delighted to be a key part of their triumph in the Europa League, he doesn’t seem the type to force a move even though he’s two years older than Koundé.

“I have a contract at Villarreal,” he said as quoted by Manchester Evening News. “I just won the first title for my club, we have qualified for the Champions League and it is something that excites me a lot. Now I’m focused on the Euros. Then the Super Cup and nice things will come, so I’m totally calm. I live in my hometown, very quiet, doing beautiful things and fighting for great things with my hometown team.”

Koundé is on his holidays at the moment before returning to Sevilla to begin pre-season. The tables have turned somewhat; Monchi needs to sell his prized asset to finance transfer activity, but suitors aren’t forthcoming. Tottenham Hotspur enquired about his services only for Koundé to rebuff them; they obviously didn’t represent the upgrade he envisioned when he laid his cards on the table earlier in the summer.

Pau’s summer action isn’t over and done with. He took a couple of days off following Spain’s exit from Euro 2020 before joining up with Luis de la Fuente’s squad for the Olympic Games in Tokyo. They drew their one-and-only warm-up game against Japan, and will kick off their campaign against Egypt on July 22nd. Should he be able to help Spain win gold, it should change the complexion of his summer somewhat.

Their next moves aren’t dependent on themselves, but the complex network of activity that makes up the summer transfer window. Ramos has departed Madrid and joined PSG, while David Alaba has left Bayern Munich for Madrid. United are currently negotiating with Madrid to sign Raphaël Varane; that move could be crucial in deciding whether Madrid or United will be returning to the market to recruit a centre-back.

Both players are in good positions, representing clubs in good moments. Both will be key parts of their teams should they stay, competing in the Champions League and deepening their experience at a crucial time in their careers.

A move for either could be imminent, or it could be a way off yet. Both have bright futures, but there’s no doubt Pau has managed the situation the better of the two. He’d be honoured to represent his club and his city in Europe’s premier competition; if he leaves, he’ll do so from a position of strength.