After a phased introduction to life at Arsenal last season, Lucas Torreira burst onto the scene in North London and was quickly feted as the answer to several of the team’s more persistent flaws. The feeling that the Gunners had missed a top quality ball winner in front of the defence had pervaded for many years and if a fan base is feeling starved of a more agricultural style of player, presenting them with a Uruguayan defensive midfielder is bound to tickle some sweet spots.
Torreira’s introduction coincided with a 22 match unbeaten run that probably misled many observers as to the size of the Arsenal re-generation project. In the early autumn sunshine at Craven Cottage, as Emery’s side released the handbrake against a Fulham team who turned out to be desperately poor, the away stand sang, “we’ve got our Arsenal back.” It was also the day that the Torreira song was birthed.
However, as winter bit and Arsenal’s form proved to be a bit of a mirage, Torreira’s influence and eventually his involvement began to wane. Nearly a year on, there remains the feeling that Emery does not quite consider Torreira to be one of his favourites, a suspicion given greater credence by Amy Lawrence’s piece from August suggesting that the coach wanted to sign Nzonzi over and above Torreira.
So why has his Gunners career not quite taken off since the initial explosion of affection for the little Uruguayan? There are undoubtedly some ‘soft factors’- adjusting to the physical demands of the Premier League, a task made more difficult by the amount of travelling he has to do with his national team. Uruguay played in the World Cup in 2018 and the Copa America in 2019- they have another Copa America engagement in 2020 too.
However, there are tactical explanations too- the most simple of which is that top coaches prefer a distributor at the base of their midfield in the modern game. Chelsea invited scrutiny last season for their decision to play Jorginho as the deepest player with Ngolo Kante moved further up. Emery has utilised Torreira in a similar fashion in recent months. Torreira played as a number 10 until his late teenage years after all.
There is a divergence between how fans and coaches view this type of player. Fans are emotionally invested and therefore nervous, so we view ball winners as security blankets, we like to see their role simplified because they make us feel a little less anxious. However, coaches of top clubs often view a player’s destructive qualities as an offensive weapon and not just a strictly defensive measure.
The modern game is hooked on the drug of high pressing and transition and midfield terriers are often deployed slightly higher up nowadays to force turnovers and swiftly turn defence into attack. However, Emery’s ‘issue’, for want of a better word, when it comes to Torreira lies in how he progresses the ball. Torreira is an economical passer, he is not the zero in possession that Coquelin and Flamini were.
In his profile piece for Arseblog last summer, Phil Costa highlighted Torreira’s tidy passing. Yet how he progresses the ball is key. Emery surprisingly omitted Torreira from his starting line-up for the Europa League semi-final against Valencia in April. When quizzed on the decision, Unai said, “Because we need also with the ball, to have players on the pitch with the possibility against a team like Valencia with two lines of four, to break their line with passes.”
While Torreira is an efficient passer, he has not been an adventurous one at Arsenal. For Sampdoria and Uruguay, he played at the base of a midfield diamond, which had three central players in reasonably close proximity. Torreira is good at defeating pressure with short combination passes. Arsenal’s midfield, however, is a little more spread out.
Ergo, Emery prefers the slightly longer passing ranges of Guendouzi and Granit Xhaka. Emery likes for his midfielders to feed the full-backs and Guendouzi and Xhaka do this more ably than Torreira. The coach favours control over chaos and Torreira’s game is not built on controlling the technical tempo of a game quite like his counterparts.
Lucas Torreira, Arsenal 18-19.
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It is also fair to say that the team started to move away from Torreira during the course of last season. For a start, Emery began to favour a back three more and more in an attempt to build greater defensive security. This formation makes less sense for a player like Lucas, who is a scurrier, he likes to cover ground and, notably, he also likes to drop between his centre-halves in possession.
There is less need for that function when operating with a back three. The exclusion of Mesut Ozil last winter also pushed the team away from the Uruguayan’s qualities. With Ozil in midfield, the midfield has a greater call for a player like Torreira. The job of feeding Ozil is covered by Xhaka or Guendouzi, allowing Torreira to focus on his more destructive qualities.
With a back three and Ozil pushed out of the team, Torreira became less of a fit for Arsenal’s midfield. When Ozil was replaced by Aaron Ramsey, the situation was exacerbated, Ramsey is an off the ball runner and he requires technicians around him to control possession while he vacates the midfield space to make forward runs. Ramsey and Torreira was not a favourable mix.
There are improvements Torreira can make, leaving aside the tactical shape shifting that stunted his first season. He is a reactive defender, which is fine, but in an open structure like Arsenal’s, he is too susceptible to movement to drag him out of position. His game is built on his physical qualities, but his defensive positioning could do with a tune-up so that duels are not his only avenue of defence. (Mind you, I am not convinced Granit Xhaka is any better in this respect).
While his energy is an attribute, he could do with learning to channel it. Often he runs himself into the ground in games, meaning his influence wanes during the second half of matches. Phil Costa’s piece highlights an anecdote from his Pescara days when he trained so hard that he had bad blisters on his feet, which unduly affected his performances.
He can’t do much to improve his height, assuming this is an issue for Emery. The fact that the coach wanted Steven Nzonzi and favours Granit Xhaka at the base of the midfield suggests he favours a more imposing physical stature. His coach at Sampdoria, Marco Giampaolo, once remarked, ‘If Lucas Torreira was 1.8m, he’d be worth 100 million pounds.’
I have said many times that I would like Emery to lean into a double pivot of Guendouzi and Torreira, whom I think complement one another very well. The only concern is that they are both perhaps a little reactive in the defensive phase, as opposed to proactive, but, again, that is not a flaw that Granit Xhaka’s presence solves.
Ultimately, I think Torreira suffered because Unai Emery didn’t feel he could use his preferred 433 / 4231 formation last season and the Uruguayan has a far more natural home at the base of this type of structure. The move towards a back three made him obsolete and, this season, he has again been denied a pre-season to integrate with his teammates. That said, a midfield featuring Guendouzi and Ceballos begins to shift those tectonic plates back in his favour.