Manchester City have been trying to solve their striker problem all summer — but is the answer sitting right in front of their eyes?
After publicly failing to land top target Harry Kane, the Citizens look set to make Spanish winger Ferran Torres their go-to centre-forward the season.
Ahead of City’s Champions League opener against RB Leipzig this evening, we ponder whether Torres’ positional switch will end up as an underwhelming experiment or one of Pep Guardiola’s greatest masterstrokes.
It is no secret that Guardiola did not intend for 21-year-old Torres to shoulder City’s goalscoring burden this term.
England skipper Kane, 28, was the subject of a £100million bid from the Premier League champions in June, with the forward even openly expressing his wish to leave Tottenham prior to England’s Euro 2020 campaign.
An agreement seemed inevitable for a long time but Spurs’ notoriously stubborn chairman Daniel Levy had other ideas, demanding in excess of £150m to let his talisman depart.
And after weeks of uncertainty, the deal was left dead in the water when Kane pledged his allegiance to Spurs for at least another season — just five days before the close of the summer transfer window.
Following the saga, Guardiola admitted: “We tried to open the door to negotiate, but the big master of negotiations Daniel Levy knows everything, we couldn’t do it.
“The club did absolutely everything they could. When one team doesn’t want to negotiate, there is nothing to say.”
Finding an alternative
Despite late links with a move for Cristiano Ronaldo, City opted against bringing in another forward this summer.
While an experienced No9 was clearly on Guardiola’s wish list, the 50-year-old tactician is no stranger to innovation and thrives on finding solutions to difficult problems.
Enter Torres, who showed glimpses of both immense potential and, more intriguingly, impressive versatility during an encouraging first season in English football.
The Valencia academy graduate arrived at the Etihad billed as a flying winger with a direct way of playing, yet occupied several different roles ably in his 36 appearances.
Torres featured on the right, left, in attacking midfield and as a centre-forward — plugging gaps in Guardiola’s XI wherever required and doing so in the fashion of someone far beyond his years.
Perhaps his most surprising achievement however was a 13-goal haul across all competitions, trumping the nine strikes he had managed in just under 100 appearances at his former club.
It was a 4-3 win at Newcastle in May, operating as part of a fluid front three alongside Gabriel Jesus and Raheem Sterling, where Torres truly showcased his natural eye for goal.
In what was an unusually lacklustre defensive display from the newly-crowned champions, Torres stole the show with a stunning hat-trick that beautifully showcased his impressive skillset.
His first strike was a moment of sheer class, creatively backheel volleying an Ilkay Gundogan free-kick past a shell-shocked Martin Dubravka in the Magpies’ goal.
What then followed were two prime examples of a poacher’s instinct — first guiding a low Jesus cross in at the near post with his left foot before cushioning Joao Cancelo’s rebounded shot in with his right a few minutes later.
The performance prompted plenty of plaudits and gave Guardiola food for thought.
At full-time, Guardiola said of Torres: “He has achieved incredible numbers and goals in his first season in the Premier League.
“He is so young and clinical. He is a guy brought as a winger but maybe we have to now think as a striker.”
Ticks the boxes
Sure enough, Guardiola has deployed his compatriot in a No9 role for all four of City’s Premier League outings so far this term.
So far, he has two goals to his name, both coming in the 5-0 rout of Arsenal where he twice applied the clinical finishing touch to a cross from eight yards out.
The 13 shots he has attempted is the second-highest tally in the division, only behind current top scorer Michail Antonio (18), while he also ranks inside the league’s top 10 forwards for completed take-ons (sixth), passes made (seventh) and possessions won in the attacking third (seventh).
Though it is early days, Torres’ overall contribution in the centre-forward role has been impressive — enough to catch the eye of ex-City striker Shaun Goater.
Goater, who netted 49 times in 106 City games, told Manchester City’s official website last month: “I think it’s a big season for Torres. He’ll be challenging for top scorer.
“I love what I am seeing with his movement. Torres up the middle makes decisions like he is a striker, so it’s no surprise that he scores.
“I think he is quality. Every time I watch him, I think he is a centre-forward.”
Time on his side
The Spaniard is far from the finished article — but early indications hint that Guardiola may have stumbled onto a very capable alternative to lead his line.
While Ronaldo, Kane, Romelu Lukaku and Mohamed Salah provide City’s rivals with goalscoring reliability the youngster cannot match, fans and pundits will be better served focussing on what he does bring to the table.
Dynamic, intelligent and rapidly improving, Torres looks the ideal project for a side who put an emphasis on patient play and a manager who loves to help players expand their technical capabilities.
With seven City players reaching double figures in last season’s goal charts across all competitions, Torres need not worry about challenging for the Golden Boot and instead can concentrate on mastering his craft.
If he continues to do so at his current rate, perhaps his boss will not need to return to the transfer market next summer at all.