The Rise, Revival, and Redefining of Óliver Torres

If you’re a Football Manager addict, a Career Mode junkie, or just some guy who likes to watch baby-faced Spanish midfielders dribble past an entire team, chances are you’ve heard of Óliver Torres. Having joined Atlético Madrid’s academy at age 13, the Extremadureño midfielder progressed through the youth ranks before landing himself a call-up to Diego Simeone’s senior team at 18. He hadn’t even played a minute for the reserve side yet, but it didn’t matter: he was that good.

A few months later, Óliver was called up to Spain’s U-19 side for the 2012 U-19 Euros in Estonia. While Andrés Iniesta and Xavi Hernández were running the show for the senior side in Poland and Ukraine, leading La Roja to a third consecutive international triumph, the teenage Óliver was displaying his own burgeoning talent for the youth team. He played from left wing, to the #10, to left interior midfielder, but no matter where, he was a vital starter for his side. Spain would go on to win the U-19 Euros.

They didn’t know it yet, but something special was building in the Vicente Calderón. He had been manager for just a few months, but Diego Simeone was instilling a new spirit in the hearts of the Colchoneros. One of excitement and hope, one that would be exacerbated by the loan returns of Diego Costa and Raúl García, but also the arrival of their precocious homegrown talent. Óliver made his professional debut in the season opener, and in October, he would not only make his Champions League debut, but score his debut goal as well for the senior side. He would make 10 appearances for Atlético over the course of the season, a reborn Atleti who would finish 3rd place and win the Copa Del Rey that season.

Óliver would make 13 appearances for Atleti the following season, scoring one goal, but with playing time limited by the loan return of Diego Ribas in January, he would leave for Villarreal on loan. However, he would make just 9 appearances for the Yellow Submarines, and while his Rojiblanco teammates enjoyed the most successful season in club history, he sat on the bench for the 6th-placed team.

While Atleti were marching towards the title, and while Óliver was rotting on the Villarreal bench, a storm was brewing in Porto. The defending Liga NOS champions were having a torrid season, and Paulo Fonseca was finding the shoes of Vítor Pereira, who had departed for Al-Ahli after winning back-to-back titles, hard to fill. Fonseca was sacked in March, and Porto finished 3rd, a dismal 13 points away from eventual champions Benfica. It was time for a change, both in the squad and the man coaching the squad.

That following summer, Porto brought in a treasure trove of talent, among them, Casemiro, Yacine Brahimi, Vincent Aboubakar, and yes, you guessed it, Óliver Torres. The new man in charge? Julen Lopetegui, who led Óliver’s Spain to the U-19 Euros in 2012.

Other Spaniards who worked under him in the youth teams, like Jose Campaña and Cristian Tello, followed him too, but it was clear that Óliver was the most vital arrival. From the moment he stepped onto the pitch, Óliver enchanted the Estádio do Dragão with his passing, technique, and delicate, twisting movements on the ball. A serious injury in September couldn’t keep him down either; Óliver returned to the first team and became a guaranteed starter at Porto. He was nominated for the Golden Boy award in 2015, and in key Champions League games against the likes of Bayern and Basel, he shined the brightest.

Porto were eliminated in the Champions League after a vicious remontada from Pep Guardiola’s side wiped away their first-leg advantage, and Porto finished 2nd, just three points off the top spot. Nonetheless, it was clear: Óliver Torres was a star in the making, and the whole world wanted him on their team.

Porto fans wanted him to stay. Atlético fans wanted him to return. Barcelona fans wanted the club to take up their option on the midfielder, which they acquired after selling David Villa to Atlético in 2013.

Óliver returned to Madrid, keeping a special place for Porto in his heart. Óliver would exhibit his talent in Madrid on occasion, yet he struggled for consistency, and he struggled to gel to Simeone’s system, the same system that demands “A morir, los míos mueren.” He avoided a departure in January, but by the time the summer transfer window rolled around, he knew the only option that remained was another exit.

Porto, on the other hand, were struggling again. Óliver’s absence was one hole too big to fill. Porto was starved of creativity without their Spanish jewel. The team fell apart without him; Lopetegui was sacked in January, and Porto finished 3rd once again.

Atlético offered Óliver to several clubs, such as Roma, Napoli, and Celta Vigo, but as they always say, home is where the heart is. Óliver returned to Porto with a burning desire to finish what he had started, and this time, Porto had a purchase option.

Porto had their star prince back, and it didn’t matter that Nuno Espírito Santo, and not Lopetegui, was in charge this time, it didn’t matter that this was a completely new system and a completely new team, Óliver came back into the first team without skipping a beat. This time, though, he had come home for good.

Óliver immediately broke into the line-up, robbing Héctor Herrera of a starting spot and displaying the creativity that Porto had so desperately lacked the season prior. His magic was on display for all of Portugal to see on November 6, 2016: O Clássico.

Against Benfica, Óliver left magic in every touch. He broke the lines, finding players across the pitch with long, vertical passes. He tended to situate himself in the left wing or left half-space before drifting inwards, combining with teammates or dribbling past Benfica players. In the 24th minute, isolated on the left wing, Óliver drifted forward and broke the lines of defense with a precise pass, like a surgeon making an incision during open-heart surgery. Jesús Corona had his shot saved, but the pass did not lose its magic.

Throughout the game, he would slice through Benfica’s midfield with quick, vertical passes, either to the wings or as straight, square passes. He twisted and turned his way past the opposition with his dancing feet, he cut through defenses with his passing, and he demonstrated the kind of relentless aggression and defending that Diego Simeone had sought to provoke of him. This was a masterclass, and it left one thing very clear: Óliver Torres was back.

By February, Porto had decided to make the loan deal permanent for a fee of €20 million. It was the 2nd most expensive transfer in Liga NOS history.

It was the same as the last time around; Porto came up just short of the title, losing the league to Benfica in the final weeks. Nuno left for Wolverhampton, and Sérgio Conceição, a young, promising coach who had played for Porto, replaced him.

Conceição opted for a 4-4-2, with Héctor Herrera and Danilo Pereira shoring up shop in the middle of the pitch. Suddenly, after being indispensable the previous term, Óliver found himself fourth choice, behind the starting midfield pivot and Sérgio Oliviera. It seemed like Óliver, the talented, diminutive playmaker, did not fit the profile. Conceição needed physically imposing warriors to impose the defensive balance, fight for long balls, and hold the system in place. Óliver, for all his talent, was not the prototypical fit for this system. The most expensive signing in club history found himself stranded on the bench.

Porto fans didn’t like it, but they didn’t complain either. As they say, “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” Conceição was working miracles with Porto, taking a thin squad to first place in Liga NOS. For the first time since 2013, Porto had broken Benfica’s dynasty, and for once, even if he did not play as vital of a role as he expected to, Óliver finally tasted domestic glory.

Fast forward to this season. With Danilo Pereira recovering from a long-term injury, Sérgio and Herrera was now the new starting pivot, but they were failing to demonstrate their form of last season. Óliver, for his part, even with increased opportunities, was failing to make an impact, drawing ire from supporters for his defensive shortcomings and for his excessive back passes. This would all change on October 19, in a Taça de Portugal matchup against fourth-division side Vila Real. Porto won 6-0, and Óliver was the mastermind once again. Sure, it was sharks against minnows, but it was good enough for Conceição to change up the formula.

Since that blowout, Óliver has started seven of the last eight matches, only resting once, against Varzim in the Taça de Portugal. In the past three Champions League matches, he has given a masterclass in midfield play, and with one game left, Porto sit five points atop the group. In addition, they remain two points atop Liga NOS.

To win his way back into the line-up, Óliver has had to adapt to Conceição’s demands, making himself the defensive warrior that the manager has always asked his midfielders to be. Against Feirense, he won the ball back 11 times, the most in Liga NOS that week. On average, he’s winning 3.8 duels per game. He’s staying tuned in throughout the 90 minutes, but despite his reinvigorated defensive efforts, he hasn’t lost any of his magic touch: he’s giving Porto the creativity that they so desperately lacked at the start of the season, and he’s proving why he is the ideal partner of Danilo Pereira.

Once again, Conceição is winning. This time, though, he’s doing it with his Spanish gem.

By: @allezportoallez