Why Lucas Torreira is Arsenal’s right man in the right situation
Look down a list of the players fouled most often in the Premier League, and one name jumps out. Top of the list are Eden Hazard and Wilfried Zaha, two skilful, dribbling wide forwards with the licence to roam infield. Joining them in the top six are Richarlison, Josh Murphy and James Maddison.
These are counter-attacking jewels who are worth stopping for the mere penalty of a free-kick before they get into full flight. But third on the list behind Hazard and Zaha is not a wide forward or a No.10. It is not a player given a free attacking role, nor one who delights in the spaces between the opposition midfield and defence.
It's Lucas Torreira. On average, Arsenal’s new holding midfielder has been fouled once for every 28.3 minutes he has played in the Premier League.
Only by watching Torreira play in person do you realise just how busy he is. He is the parent of two young children with the full-time job who volunteers at the local old people’s home and nips in to do the big shop on the way home. And oh, Enid next door needs her prescription picking up from the doctors so they might as well do that too. They will pop in and see that your mum’s OK if they have time. They always have time.
A constant menace
This omnipresence must make Torreira infuriating to play against. You hit Arsenal on the counter-attack; there he is. The ball breaks on the edge of the box; he’s clearing it. A sliding challenge comes in on an overlapping full-back; guess who?
It’s like being surged past by James Milner: you can’t quite work out how it keeps happening, and yet stopping it proves mighty difficult and succeeds only in giving you a headache.
In the glitz and glamour of the Premier League, simply being ‘busy’ might seem like damnation with faint praise, but it should be taking as a huge compliment. Particularly in a position at Arsenal that has been more ‘vacant’ than busy for the last three seasons.
After all, Arsenal’s most successful teams of the Premier League era gained fame and adoration for their style and panache; they knew that stopping the opposition playing was key to their own bells and whistles. It’s all about balance. A successful team needs brutalists and impressionists.
Torreira has been one of the signings of the Premier League season so far, months ahead of reasonable schedule. If imports – particularly central midfielders – from Serie A usually require a period of acclimatisation to get to grips with the faster pace and counter-attacking of England's top flight, Sampdoria to Arsenal via a World Cup in Russia has been a remarkably smooth transition.
Building on Granit
If Torreira’s Duracell Bunny act has impressed most observers, Granit Xhaka is the biggest winner of all. The pair have formed a symbiotic relationship in which Torreira covers for Xhaka’s occasional lapses in positional discipline, and Xhaka is responsible for the more adventurous passing from central midfield. They are firefighter and firestarter.
This is about personality as much as technical ability. If we were to define Torreira by one personality trait, it would be the lack of fear that is so often shared by diminutive South American players. Standing at 5ft 5in, Torreira looks out of place in a team lineup but not the team. He is greater than the sum of his literal parts. Try to push him around? Just you watch.
Which is why the Uruguayan fits in so perfectly at new Arsenal, a club desperately trying to rid themselves of The Fear that haunted their final years under Arsene Wenger. If existing players needed a fresh role model untainted by the horrors of recent away misery and unflinching in the face of adversity, a 22-year-old is setting the example.
Running. Rescuing. Snapping. Snarling. Coping. Caring. These are a few of Arsenal supporters’ favourite things. Torreira is a cult hero almost by design. How could you not root for the third-smallest player in the Premier League, operating in a position where giants usually roam? How could you not love him if he was yours?
Torreira is not perfect, and to pretend otherwise does nobody any favours. He is occasionally rash in the tackle, and while he generally makes up for the lack of physical presence, he clearly struggles in aerial duels. But then if he is still raw, so too are Arsenal five months into Unai Emery’s tenure. Both remain a work in progress; both have offered enough promise to justify plenty of faith.
Yet Torreira’s early success in Arsenal red is certainly emphatic proof of the importance of being the right person in the right situation at the right time. Arsenal were crying out for a holding midfielder to better protect a creaking central defence, and a player capable of receiving the ball under pressure without panicking.
In Torreira, they have found exactly that. In Arsenal, he has found all the goodwill and love a player could wish for at a club aiming for better days.