There are quite a few reasons that I am surprised that Unai Emery has held onto his job at Arsenal to this point. Among the straws that really ought to have broken the camel’s back by now is Emery’s treatment of expensive ‘club assets’- for want of a better phrase. We were told when Emery was hired that he could slot into a director of football style structure now in operation at Arsenal.
The available evidence suggests quite the opposite. Emery has made it clear that he is not entirely happy with two of the club’s biggest investments over the last two summers, with Lucas Torreira and Nicolas Pepe treated with a level of indifference that feels pointed. Pepe has fallen into Europa League rotation just as soon as his vaguely promising performances translated into end-product.
The director of football model was once openly decried in England. The argument went that buying players a manager might not was a formula ripe for friction and ill-feeling. The model is now widely accepted, but that doesn’t mean those anxieties are entirely unfounded. I think Emery has tried to demonstrate that he doesn’t want all of the players he has been bequeathed.
However, it is the use of Lucas Torreira that has ‘intrigued’ the most. The Uruguayan’s agent is shouting his client’s unrest from the rooftops via loudhailer. Arsenal possibly anticipated a fairly quick sell-on when they bought Torreira from Sampdoria in 2018, but they were probably thinking more along the lines of profitable sale to a superclub after a glorious spell destroying Premier League midfields.
Emery has suggested that creating friction with players is part of his coaching philosophy. It doesn’t appear to be working too well at Arsenal at this moment in time and it is a surprise that the club don’t seem to be too concerned about it driving away players that were supposed to represent a brave new world for Arsenal.
When Emery does start Torreira, he tends to use him higher up in the midfield as a pressing agent so that he can win the ball high up the pitch and force turnovers. “He can achieve with his quality to get to the box and get closer to score,” Emery explained in October. “He is very intelligent about getting space around the box and taking chances.”
Gol de Edinson Cavani. Que centro de Lucas Torreira. Gana Uruguay. pic.twitter.com/OKp614NijA
— NB ? (@nahuelbeaug) November 18, 2019
Essentially, Torreira is being asked to replace Aaron Ramsey, which has confused many. The idea of using an energetic player in a more advanced position is not without merit in this day and age when so many teams pass out from the back. The problem is that Arsenal’s press is not coached rigorously or particularly co-ordinated, which limits Torreira’s effectiveness in such a role.
Sometimes we can be a little preoccupied with positional graphics and precise roles when the reality is that formations and tactics can be fluid. As fans we can become especially preoccupied with the deployment of defensive midfield players. We are anxious and, occasionally, a little irrational and a tough tackling defensive midfield player helps to allay some of our anxieties. It’s the light in the hallway when we are afraid to sleep in the dark.
Maurizio Sarri felt the full frustration of the media and the Chelsea faithful last season when he played Ngolo Kante ahead of Jorginho, who played a deep lying playmaker position. It felt anathema to many to see one of the world’s primary ball winners positioned anywhere other than the edge of his own penalty area, snuffing out danger. When it comes to defensive midfielders, fans are not so much traditionalists as puritans.
Yet the noises from the Torreira camp suggest the player is as uncomfortable with the positional rethink as the supporters are. With Granit Xhaka booting the door down on the departure lounge, the Gunners are not really in a position to sacrifice another deeper midfield player. Xhaka’s scorched earth policy has given Emery the perfect excuse to marry Torreira and Guendouzi at the base of his midfield.
I always had a hunch that Emery’s reticence to name Xhaka as captain was partly due to doubts over his long-term future in the team. Xhaka is not as bad a player as he is often made out to be, he has become increasingly ill-suited to the Arsenal team. This situation has been exacerbated this season because Matteo Guendouzi is now the player that receives the ball from the centre-halves and distributes.
Lucas Torreira appreciation post.
— Arsenal (@Arsenal) November 9, 2018
Reducing Xhaka’s involvement in collecting and distributing from deep in this way has neutered him and reduced his influence, which made Emery’s insistence on picking him for every game even more difficult to understand. With Guendouzi effectively already doing Xhaka’s job, the coast ought to be clear for Lucas Torreira to perform his ball winning routine and allow Guendouzi to make the play.
However, I do think it’s worth asking whether Torreira’s early exploits were overplayed. Arsenal fans were so desperate to see a player of Torreira’s ilk it was understandable if we all went a little overboard after those early performances. Indeed, his approval rating rose after attacking contributions- with crucial goals against Spurs and Huddersfield last winter.
His form notably dipped during the festive season and, at that point, his role was not materially different to the one he had performed with such commendation in the autumn. Many of us put that down to fatigue after arriving from Italy, but it could just as feasibly have represented a regression to the mean.
As Andrew has outlined on the blog many times in recent weeks, it is very difficult to make assessments of individual players in a team that looks so fundamentally broken with a coach grasping for solutions by the game. The confidence of the players has visibly sagged and the odour of bad mojo is pungent- especially where Torreira is concerned.
I am not sure whether Torreira is the defensive midfield saviour he was anointed as last year, but I am also sure that he is a better, happier player than the one we’re seeing when played in a simpler, more digestible role. It would also be a shame to lose him before we get an opportunity to see how good he is. It took Arsenal a long, long time to find a player like Lucas Torreira, it’s not a search they should be forced to repeat again so soon.