Sunday, September 24, 2023

From Torreira to where?

The transfer of Lucas Torreira from Sampdoria two years ago was a highly lauded piece of business by Arsenal fans. Many supporters and pundits had craved the presence of a specialist, destructive defensive midfielder at Arsenal for some years and buying one that happened to be Uruguayan appealed to our sensibilities and, maybe, some of our pre-conceived notions about Uruguayan footballers.

The signing of Torreira was also supposed to signal a new era of smart recruitment headed up by Sven Mislintat. Mislintat, we are told, simply punched Ngolo Kante’s statistics into his database and Torreira showed up favourably in the ‘similar players’ field. Buying a 22-year old Uruguayan from Sampdoria was a pleasingly ‘under the radar’ purchase for a club that needed to smarten up in the market.

Players of this age rarely depreciate in value- I suspect if Arsenal decided to cut ties and sell Lucas this summer they would expect to recoup what they paid for him, even in a depressed market. Arsenal fans were swift to take Torreira to their hearts and it’s not difficult to understand why. Here was the sort of player the team had lacked and an iconic goal against Spurs will always boost your reputation in N5.

Two years on and the sense that it just isn’t working for Torreira at Arsenal is pervasive. You get the impression the club would be receptive to offers this summer and his departure wouldn’t create any kind of uproar. Most Arsenal fans are thoroughly attuned to the idea that the squad is in need of a rebuild and that funds are required to finance it; so many of us are scanning the squad list for signs of value.

So why has Torreira’s Arsenal career meandered after such a promising start? Well, there are ‘soft’ factors to consider. Lucas is an introverted character, a young South American who has come from Serie A- the Premier League is a different world and there is a level of adjustment required. Rumours abounded during his debut season that he desired a return to Italy, where he felt more at home.

He has hardly been part of a settled squad either- he is already on his third Arsenal coach and a broken ankle in March cost him some time to train and adapt to Arteta’s new system. Last summer he played for Uruguay in Copa America, starting pre-season late and by the time his season got under way Unai Emery’s Arsenal side was a tactical tyre fire.

Torreira was briefly fielded in a more advanced midfield position- which wasn’t as ridiculous an idea as it seemed at the time. It didn’t work because the team was fundamentally broken but it makes a certain amount of sense to utilise Torreira’s ball-winning skills higher up the pitch to force transitions.

The issue was that nobody else in that area of the pitch was asked to force or react to transitions. Torreira’s drift at Arsenal emphasises a wider tactical quandary to which he has fallen victim. Ngolo Kante is seen as the gold standard ball winning defensive midfielder and Chelsea have struggled to accommodate him in recent seasons.

Bigger teams now dominate the ball to such a degree that the need for a purely destructive player at the base of the midfield is becoming close to obsolete. Chelsea pushed Kante up the pitch too in order to accommodate the ball playing attributes of Jorginho and Matteo Kovacic. Torreira’s redundancy at Arsenal bears stark contrast to the importance given to Granit Xhaka and Dani Ceballos.

Xhaka is a limited player. He cannot turn away from pressure, is dreadfully one-footed, ponderously slow and couldn’t tackle a bollard. His superpower is distribution and that is enough for him to be one of the most important players in the side. (Competing facts can be simultaneously true- a player can be limited and very important).

Torreira is far from a zero in distribution but competency in possession isn’t sufficient for the tastes of many a coach now. Torreira fared better at the base of Sampdoria’s midfield diamond and as the shuffler in Uruguay’s 4-4-2. In these systems, his role was far more specialised and he was free to be the fire engine of the midfield.

He sprints to danger, extinguishes the fire then quickly and quietly moves the ball to a colleague. Xhaka’s role at Arsenal is similarly specialised, it’s just that his attributes are deemed more worthwhile to the coach. There is an argument that the modern midfield has inverted and the destructive ‘DM’ is as outmoded as the effete ‘number 10.’

Lots of top coaches now want creative passing types in the build-up and favour athletes in more advanced positions. There is a danger that specialised midfielders of any sort are limiting unless they are of absolutely elite calibre. Jorginho, for instance, has fallen in and out of favour at Chelsea and Xhaka’s Arsenal career has hardly been smooth.

Deep lying playmakers can be easy to mark out of the game and they can make your team one-dimensional. Liverpool don’t have a specialised ‘DM’ particularly and they don’t have a number 10 either. Instead, they have a collection of options who could be classified as ‘all-rounders.’ The build of Liverpool’s midfield enables Klopp to rotate gently too- he can field any three of six or seven options and have them perform a roughly similar task.

In recent weeks, Arteta has asked Ceballos and Xhaka to rotate when it comes to dropping deep and collecting possession. This prevents the opposition from marking one of them out of the game. For supporters, the marginalisation of players like Torreira and Kante can be confusing and unsatisfying.

Fans like destructive defensive midfielders in their teams because we are an anxious audience. We want the ‘bouncer’ in front of the defence evicting danger with a firm shoulder charge or tackle. The defensive midfielder is our answer to ‘more Bobbies on the beat’- it gives us a feeling of security otherwise absent as we nervously watch our teams and consider every opposition attack a goal in the making.

Arteta, himself a deep-lying ball player at Arsenal, has enthusiastically gushed over the importance of Dani Ceballos and Granit Xhaka. He has been far quieter on the comparative qualities of Lucas Torreira. Arteta rested Xhaka for the recent defeat at Villa Park and it’s telling that, with the Gunners trailing, his first move was to replace Torreira with Xhaka at half-time. As a player, Torreira is a firefighter but it looks like his Arsenal flame is extinguished.

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