He could easily be describing the time Pep Guardiola first laid eyes on Lionel Messi, but Domenec Torrent is instead recalling the moment the Manchester City manager first realized the future was Phil Foden.
‘He was 16,’ says Torrent. ‘Seven or eight of the academy players came to train with the first team, all very good players, but I remember that Pep said to me the second day: “that skinny little kid, he’s the best of them. He’ll make it for sure”.
Torrent, who was ten years Guardiola’s assistant at Barcelona, Bayern Munich and Manchester City, tells this story to illustrate what he calls ‘Pep’s special intuition’ but also because he’s genuinely excited about England’s 20-year-old midfielder ahead of Saturday’s Champions League final.
Pep Guardiola’s former right-hand man Domenec Torrent (second right) recalled the first time the manager watched Phil Foden for Manchester City
The England forward lit up training when he joined up with the first team at the age of 16
‘He’s very gifted,’ he says. ‘Pep showed him things and in two seconds, he knew what he had to do.
‘He knew when he had to break lines with passes, knew when he had to wait, he knew how to move. He understood it all very quickly.
‘And players like Foden have added value because they are local lads have a real feel for the club. The best Barcelona team in history was full of players from its youth system.
‘They have a special DNA. And this happens with Foden. They can play well or badly but it doesn’t weigh on them, they are no nerves because this is where they wanted to be all their life, it’s the team they wanted to play for.
‘Phil Foden doesn’t get nervous. Sergio Busquets doesn’t get nervous. Xavi doesn’t get nervous. Gerard Pique and Andres Iniesta don’t.
Torrent says Foden has a ‘special DNA’ because he has progressed through the club’s academy
‘You can sign a player who has been at big clubs for years and he comes to the Camp Nou and it eats him up.
‘Pique came at 19, and it felt natural to him: this is my team, my pitch, my terrain. A player like that has no nerves.’
Torrent knows anxiety can be a factor in finals, especially first ones.
A part of the net cut from the goal in Rome’s Olympic Stadium after the 2009 final hangs on the wall behind him as he reflects on Guardiola’s first Champions League final as a coach 12 years ago.
Torrent and fellow coaching assistant Carles Planchart provided images that were used in an inspirational video shown to the players before they ran out to face what he describes as ‘one of the best Manchester United teams of recent times’.
The video mixed scenes from the film Gladiator with images of each of the Barcelona players. It’s well documented that it overshot the runway a little in terms of desired effect.
‘It didn’t just motivate the players it hyper-motivated them,’ Torrent says. ‘Motivation is good, but extremes are always bad. United dominated the first 15 minutes. I think it was the last time we ever did it!’
Barcelona recovered from their bad start and won the game with Samuel Eto’o scoring the first and Messi heading in the second. ‘What people don’t know about Leo is that his head is like a hammer,’ says Torrent. ‘He is short but he has so much lower body strength. There is a lot of power in those legs.
‘He gets up like Michael Jordan and he was suspended in the air. That was a spectacular goal.’
Two years later Torrent was back in the final with Guardiola this time at Wembley. ‘The second final was much better for us; we dominated it from the start,’ he recalls.
‘Because of a volcanic ash cloud we had to arrive a lot earlier to London and Pep could work on details. We were ultra-prepared.’
It’s now ten years since Wembley, so what happened? Why has it taken Guardiola a decade to get back to a final?
Lionel Messi headed in the winner in Barcelona’s 2-1 victory over Manchester United in 2009
Barca then beat United again in 2011 as Guardiola picked up the trophy for a second time
Torrent went with him to Germany where Bayern were beaten in three consecutive semi-finals.
He then moved to Manchester with him where, first Monaco, and then Liverpool, cut short City’s European adventure.
‘If you are asking me about the first year of Pep at City,’ he says. ‘We inherited a good squad but we had almost 10 players who were over 31 years old. And they were very good.
‘But this happens sometimes with teams, you go there and you find very good players but to play the style you want to play perhaps you have to make two or three changes. And I think Pep made changes bit by bit by trying to sign players who fitted his style.
‘And in those three years at Bayern in semi-finals we came up against the best Real Madrid, and the best Barcelona because they had Neymar, Suarez and Messi and all of them five years younger so imagine what that was like.’
‘Sometimes you get that little bit of luck too. It’s happened this season with Manchester City playing PSG without [Kylian] Mbappe, just as PSG had played Bayern without [Robert] Lewandowski.’
Does it annoy him that people say Guardiola has failed in Europe because of that ten-year gap between finals?
‘There are no shades of grey with Pep, either you love him or you’re always looking for the slightest thing and it’s true that there has been [a long time without winning the Champions League] but we don’t analyse why.
‘One day when he has left it all behind, we’ll say how good he was, what a genius. But years have to pass first.
‘Pep is not perfect, no one is, but he’s very close. If someone gets very close in their work then that’s when the critics come.
Guardiola failed to win the competition at Bayern Munich and this will be his first European final since Barca won it again in 2011
They won’t convince me, even if he doesn’t win the Champions League, which he will.’
Torrent believes the criticism goes hand in hand with a misunderstanding of what Guardiola sets out to achieve.
‘People think he’s all about “tiki-taka”. I think “tiki-taka” means passes that are meaningless. Positional play is a different thing: it’s passes to break lines and score goals. ‘People think Pep wants to produce forty passes before scoring. But he has always said that if the team can rob the ball and can score in two passes, do it.
‘When do you play thirty? When the opponent is deep, when there are no spaces, and you have to move them around to get the space to open up. But if Pep can attack in two seconds he will.’
One man who has always been on Guardiola’s wavelength is the coach he first faced in Germany and who will be his opponent on Saturday.
Thomas Tuchel famously sought out Guardiola when he was on a Sabbatical between coaching Mainz and taking over at Dortmund.
Torrent says he was not at the famous meeting the pair had at Schumann’s Bar in Munich in 2014 where they talked tactics and moved salt and pepper pots around the table to illustrate their points.
‘It’s perfectly natural that they exchange ideas,’ says Tuchel. ‘When Tuchel was at Dortmund they would meet to have lunch or dinner, they have a good friendship.’
Tuchel had another long chat with Guardiola on the touchline before one of the recent Chelsea v City fixtures. With so many games between the two teams doesn’t it become impossible to shock the rival?
‘Well I know Pep,’ says Torrent smiling. ‘I think there will be a surprise in the line-ups. For me as a coach it is going to be very interesting. First of all I will watch it as a Manchester City fan and then I will watch it again to analyze it.
The City boss talked tactics with Chelsea manager Thomas Tuchel in Germany in 2014
‘With Tuchel the games in Germany were always a lot of fun but very difficult because he is a very good strategist.
‘Both teams changed systems two or three times in the same game. It was like playing chess.’
He says he won’t go to Saturday’s final because it feels wrong when others can’t. ‘It’s better that the fans go, the people who deserve it.’
And there’s enduring genuine affection for City and for England.
‘I know that Pep is very, very comfortable in Manchester, he says. ‘England has shown that it’s one of the most open countries in the world.
‘Sometimes you get stereotypes: the English are very much about their own thing but then you find it’s very open-minded.
‘The best staff I have encountered was at Man City. The English football mentality is very open, they embrace new ideas.’
It’s no surprise that the England and Germany appeal most now as Torrent seeks a new challenge as a number one after spells in charge at Flamengo in Brazil and at New York City where he won the Eastern Conference. His days as an assistant are probably over.
Guardiola and his former assistant have an enduring affection for Manchester and England
Recalling the secret to doing his former job well he says: ‘Pep’s mind is going at 300 mph and he is very focused on the game, but he hears everything.
‘The best number two is the one that doesn’t want the limelight, who remains calm, and who when he is asked can respond with what he really thinks. I was with Pep long enough to know with just a glance what he wanted from me.’
And knowing him as well as he does, he is really convinced Guardiola will be the victor on Saturday?
‘Well it’s what I want to happen,’ he says. ‘They have played two games against Chelsea with different teams, formations, and they have lost. It’s hard for them to lose a third – that’s what I believe.’
Hard-working Sergio Aguero ‘doesn’t complicate your life’
Pep Guardiola was in tears at Sergio Aguero’s last match for Manchester City last weekend and his former number two Domenec Torrent speaks with the same affection about the club’s record scorer’s career.
‘He is a natural finisher who smells out the chances and scores goals wherever he plays. And he was so nice with the coaches too. He doesn’t complicate your life. He has no problem with nobody.’
Torrent has spoken before about what he calls Aguero’s ‘deceiving’ body language. The languid stroll that suggests he might be something other than the super-attentive, hard working player Torrent worked with at the Etihad.
Torrent says Sergio Aguero would always do what was needed during his time at the Etihad
‘When I had to do the set-pieces with the players and when we had to make changes and Kun was playing I would speak to him and say: “Kun (we mark zonally and we give each zone a number) you go to number six and block there and tell the others”, and he would go there and do it perfectly.
‘When we trained set-pieces he would always know exactly what he had to do. And if Pep told him, regards the pressing, instead of closing down wide, close down centrally, you don’t have to tell him twice. And Kun put a lot of effort in, in terms of defending.
‘He understands football. I remember a game away at Napoli in which we had certain problems because they were pressing us well and Pep told him to drop off into a false nine position and link with the midfield and he did it perfectly.’
Aguero will be playing alongside Lionel Messi next season, another player that Torrent knows well from his days at Barcelona.
Where does he stand now on the debate forever being kicked around at Barcelona as to whether Messi should change position again and take up Xavi’s old midfield role?
‘This year he has scored thirty goals,’ he says. ‘In what is supposed to be not a very good year. He’s so intelligent that he can see that if the ball isn’t coming out well and he goes to look for it.
He described the Argentine as a ‘natural finisher’ and someone who ‘understands football’
Aguero will play alongside his international team-mate Messi at the Nou Camp next season
‘If he plays deeper, you won’t lose the ball, but you will lose goals up front, about thirty a season.’
And what will Messi do when his playing career ends? Torrent has spoken before of Messi’s knowledge of the game and how, when he and Guardiola have been watching games from other leagues on a big screen at Manchester or Munich, Messi has interrupted to tell them all about the Botafogo winger or Palmeiras full-back.
‘He loves football,’ says Torrent. He can make a big contribution. He could do lots of things. In the past there were fewer roles: now there’s technical secretary, sporting director, youth football, a thousand things.
‘As a coach, there’s a lot of pressure and after everything he has been and done I could understand it if that didn’t attract him but he could do lots of other things. He sees a good player very quickly.’
Covid-19 pandemic has pushed teams to their limit
Managing can be difficult at the best of times but the pandemic has tested coaches to the limit says Domenec Torrent.
‘I think the pandemic has changed football a lot this year. We have seen very strange things with teams that are very intense.
‘[Jurgen] Klopp’s Liverpool were like a machine on the pitch and they have suffered physically and they have the same coach and no doubt they train the same way.
‘And City are the same. Of course a lot has changed. For about three months almost every game teams have had about seven or eight players out. It has happened to City, to Klopp to Leicester. It’s been a difficult season and people don’t always appreciate that.’
Torrent moved to Flamengo after topping the Eastern Conference with New York City
Torrent who moved to Flamengo after topping the Eastern Conference with New York City FC found things even tougher in Brazil.
‘Nothing stopped,’ he says. ‘We had one game where we had 19 Covid positives and we still had to play the game.
‘And when the players came back they were not at 100 per cent. The physical shape is not going to be the same after being out for 15 or 20 days. I think the pandemic has changed football a lot this year.
‘We were playing every two days in Brazil. It was play, travel, no time for training, maybe some set-piece work, and playing again.
‘I was used to the rotations from working in Europe and especially with pep. But there they don’t understand it and there is no time to explain it. They say: “here it’s always the best 11 that play”. This is a different and very difficult era.’
Despite all that Flamengo won 14 of their 24 games under Torrent and were sitting third when they lost their patience with him and changed the coach.
It has not lessened his desire to coach abroad with Germany or England now on the agenda for him and his team. Respect, without fear of going against the grain, are the keys to success, he believes.
The manager found things harder in Brazil with a hectic schedule impacting his coaching
‘The first show of respect when you go to a new country is to speak the language. I went to Brazil and I learned Portuguese in three months. Learn German when you go to Germany.
‘And then yes it’s often “counter-culture” what you are trying to do because the Germans or the English have their own idiosyncrasies.
‘For example Lorenzo Buenaventura (City’s fitness coach) everything he does is with the ball.
‘The players don’t do box-to-box or running without the ball. And at the start they might have thought that they were not going to be worked physical but it’s not true, it’s another type of training that allows you to get to 100 per cent and it’s based on what happens on the pitch.
‘Lorenzo always says: “I’ve never seen a player have to run up a mountain in a game”.’