5 Feet High and Rising

Much has divided Arsenal fans in recent years, especially during the second half of Arsene Wenger’s reign as the manager’s presence became a constant source of conflict. Like all fandoms of sufficient size, football fandom has its cliques; everybody experiences the game in a slightly different way. Some just want the visceral experience of drinking, swearing and singing at a match- which is admittedly one of football’s greatest charms.

Others like to analyse it; tactics, formations, structures, philosophies and the like and some extract most of their enjoyment by crunching the numbers. A lot of us like to do all of these things to different extents. As such, frictions can manifest within fan bases as the temptation to deride one another for how we enjoy the sport is ever present in the digital landscape.

Ideology is becoming an important part of how humans see themselves in the 21st century, we respond to stimuli with emotion at the expense of thought, which naturally creates conflict. Towards the end of Arsene Wenger’s tenure, the relentlessness of the conflict became migraine inducing, pitting fans against one another in perpetuity.

Admittedly, the rancour has dissolved a little this season with Wenger’s departure. I would say the majority of Arsenal fans were thirsty for change when Arsene’s resignation was announced, but the manner in which that appetite was expressed and the length of time that the disquiet endured were different from supporter to supporter.

Change has been a unifying, refreshing force. But Unai Emery is probably not the most coalescing figure at Arsenal this season. That tag, to my mind, belongs to a 5 foot 5 inch Uruguayan called Lucas Torreira. This is largely because Torreira, or at least a player of his attributes, is the most obvious signing Arsenal have made in a decade or more.

Everybody, from the chin stroking, diagram drawing tactical sophisticate, to the number crunching, bar graph constructing stats junkie, to your dad knew that Arsenal have been missing exactly this sort of player for a long time. The acronym “DM” has tripped off the tongue of Arsenal fans for so long that ‘Doctor Martens’ and ‘Direct Message’ are left with a constant need to spell it out.

The Gunners have had a host of near misses and players that divide opinion in the screening position since Gilberto Silva’s reign as the DM laureate over a decade ago. (The Brazilian was really only appreciated retrospectively too). Mathieu Flamini has twice threatened to make the position his own, Denilson and Alex Song vanished into a puff of evaporated potential, Mikel Arteta divided opinion and Francis Coquelin briefly looked promising until he lost his Santi shaped fig leaf.

Over the last two seasons, Granit Xhaka’s reputation has been damaged as he has been left to mind a midfield crater as opponents counter attacked. This is not to say Xhaka doesn’t bear some responsibility for his errors, but largely he has been left to fight off the charge of the light brigade with only a rusty colander for protection. The likes of Coquelin and Flamini brought needed aggression to the Gunners midfield, but neither had the technical quality to assist the team’s build up play.

Mikel Arteta was, for my money, an underrated exponent of the pivote art, but while his positioning and closing off of passing lanes went undetected on occasion, Arsenal still missed a shot of aggression in midfield. Most of us had not even heard of Lucas Torreira before this summer, let alone seen him play. But his signing immediately created a frisson of excitement.

Because if you’re lacking defensive coverage and a little pinch of impetus in the engine room, the words “Uruguayan defensive midfielder” really leap off the page. Thus far, Torreira has lived up to the stereotype. Upon arrival, he explained the uniquely Uruguayan concept of ‘garra charrua’ to Arsenal.com, “Garra charrua means that we give all we have inside. We give all we have to our football, our jersey and our country.”

At this point, the stirring in the collective Arsenal loins was enough to tilt the earth on its axis. The excitement over his arrival long predated his debut, as we hungrily consumed article after article describing his style. Words such as “combative”, “dynamic”, and “wiry” had all of us twitching in the trouser area.

During the World Cup, he flattened Cristiano Ronaldo, causing the jaws of Arsenal fans everywhere to flap open Homer Simpson style. The names of Patrick Vieira and Gilberto Silva have not travelled far from the tongues of the Arsenal fan base more than a decade after both have left because that mixture of diligence and combativeness have too often been missing.

Uruguayan defensive midfielder…..

Often there has been one, but not the other. The mix has never quite felt right. It is still early days, but Xhaka and Torreira has a good look and feel about it in terms of blend. Sometimes something just looks right on paper and that instantly translates onto the field. A little like the summer that saw Chelsea buy Cesc Fabregas and Diego Costa and the partnership worked in exactly the way that everyone suspected it would. Or when United lost the league title on goal difference in 2012 and responded by signing golden boot winner Robin van Persie.

Torreira is very much of the mould of Ngolo Kante, a pocket sized fireman, sprinting with hose in hand to extinguish opposition attacks. He has an innate sense of when and where a loose ball is going to drop, gobbling up the ground as he does. But it’s his technical ability that sets him apart from previous purveyors of ball winning bombast in the Gunners midfield.

It is Torreira’s line-breaking pass that kick starts the attack leading to Aubemyang’s picture book goal against Leicester City. Torreira is tidy enough to riff with Arsenal’s technicians further forward. The Uruguayan is part of a new generation alongside Rodrigo Bentancur forming the new core of the national team. Since domestic football is so bereft of revenue in Uruguay, La Celeste’s long term manager Oscar Tabarez has taken responsibility for developing players for the national team, working closely with the junior teams to create a clear pipeline and a shared style.

Tabarez prizes speed of thought, speed of movement and technical excellence as his coaches shape the junior sides ready for the full team. Torreira has been honed in that environment, as well as by his spell in Italy and speed of thought, speed of movement and technical soundness are certainly among his most appreciable qualities.

Torriera looks like the signing that everybody knew Arsenal needed. Fittingly, the fans have sung his praises using the same ‘Volare’ accompaniment reserved for Patrick Vieira. If Torreira continues in this vein, he could help Arsenal fans to lay the ghosts of Gilberto Silva and Patrick Vieira to rest. The shy, unassuming Uruguayan is beginning to call the tune in Arsenal’s midfield.

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Renowned Arsenal historians Andy Kelly and Mark Andrews and I have written a book about the tumultuous early years of Arsenal Football Club covering the period 1886 – 1893. ‘Royal Arsenal- Champions of the South’ is available to order here.