The answer to Arsenal's midfield woes? Torreira's chance to win back first-team place
The Uruguayan midfielder looks set for only his second start of the season when the Gunners play Eintracht Frankfurt in the Europa League on Thursday
When Lucas Torreira picked up Arsenal’s Player of the Month award back in November, he was being heralded as the midfielder the club had been crying out for since Gilberto Silva had ended his trophy-laden spell in north London more than a decade ago.
It had taken a little while for the £27 million ($33m) summer addition to work his way into the starting XI, with Unai Emery unsurprisingly taking his time with a player who had arrived towards the end of pre-season due to his involvement in Uruguay's 2018 World Cup campaign.
But even in those early weeks, it was clear from his cameos off the bench that Torreira was a player that could make a real difference at Arsenal.
He may have been small in stature but he had the heart of a lion and, by the time Liverpool arrived at the Emirates at the start of November, the home fans had a new hero.
His performance against the Reds only added to his growing reputation.
In the midst of his running battle with Fabinho, he produced a crunching challenge on Sadio Mane which had the Emirates roaring in delight. This was the type of barnstorming display that Arsenal had been lacking in midfield for years.
Just over a month later, Torreira was starting on the biggest stage once again, this time against Tottenham in the north London derby.
Again, the little Uruguayan was everywhere – even popping up in the Spurs penalty area late on to thump home his first Arsenal goal to put the seal on a memorable win.
“It was the best all-round midfield display I have seen in an Arsenal shirt since Patrick Vieira and Gilberto Silva used to run the show,” Martin Keown gushed.
“Torreira and Vieira could not be more different in terms of size and stature but their drive and determination is exactly the same.
“His tireless running gave Arsenal an extra body all over the pitch. You got the sense that if he could, he would happily do everyone else’s job!”
Arsenal fans could not get enough of their new midfield enforcer. Sampdoria, his former club, even had to take to Twitter to ask supporters to stop clogging up their notifications with tweets from delirious Gunners fans thanking them for selling the 23-year-old.
It was a week after the Tottenham game that Torreira was awarded Arsenal’s Player of the Month award for November, scooping 70 per cent of all votes cast.
Primarily playing alongside Granit Xhaka in the heart of midfield, he was now one of the first names on the team sheet and praise was coming from everywhere.
“Torreira is the guy we have been looking for in the past three or four seasons,” enthused Gunners legend Ian Wright. “Arsenal supporters wanted to know when are we going to sign a defensive midfielder. We have got the guy we needed.”
“Torreira’s incredible,” added Gunners goalkeeper Bernd Leno. “He’s a fighter. He’s so important for our game, for the whole defence.”
In a matter of months, the Uruguayan had made himself indispensable – but now, less than a year later, things are looking very different.
Torreira has started just one game this season and was on the bench again on Sunday as Arsenal surrendered a two-goal lead to draw 2-2 at Watford.
And the one game he did start since the start of the campaign, against Tottenham, he was positioned out wide in a midfield diamond – with Xhaka stationed in front of the back four.
Against Liverpool, he was left on the bench, although he did come on to score Arsenal’s late consolation, having again been asked to play in a more advanced role that we had become accustomed to seeing when he first joined.
It feels remarkable that a player who made such a positive impact during the first half of last season now finds himself out of the team.
Xhaka has many qualities but protecting the back four is not one of them. He doesn’t have the defensive mindset to play that role, as we saw with his inexplicable foul on Son Heung-min to give away the penalty against Spurs.
Against Watford, Emery went with a midfield diamond – with Xhaka at the base, Matteo Guendouzi and Dani Ceballos out wide and Mesut Ozil behind the front two of Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Nicolas Pepe. The manager did exactly the same against Liverpool, although Joe Willock started on that occasion instead of Ozil.
It’s a formation that just doesn’t work, though. It leaves the team far too open, with Xhaka often left isolated in the central areas. And with his lack of mobility, it’s no surprise to see Arsenal overrun.
At Watford, the Gunners gave up a staggering 31 shots, the most they have ever conceded in a Premier League match since Opta started collating records. So far this season, Arsenal have conceded 96 shots in their first five league games – that’s more than any other side in Europe’s top five leagues.
There is no stability in the Arsenal midfield and certainly no consistency. Emery started with a 4-2-3-1 formation at Newcastle on the opening day and stuck with it against Burnley the following week.
But then he changed to a diamond against Liverpool, switched to a 4-3-3 against Spurs and then went back to the diamond at Vicarage Road. Players are being asked to play different positions each week, so it’s no surprise to see them struggling to find any fluency.
For all the criticism that is being levelled at the defence, it’s clear that the midfield is a major issue. Until Emery gets that right, then Arsenal are going to continue to struggle at both ends of the pitch.
Arsenal, thus, need to get Torreira back into the team and playing at the sort of level we saw throughout the first half of last season.
The problem is Arsenal’s head coach seems determined to play Xhaka and Guendouzi together, even though we’ve seen time and time again that it a partnership that rarely works, as neither are strong or clever enough when defending their own box.
It seems glaringly obvious that Emery needs to pick one and pair him with Torreira in front of the back four.
Emery’s favoured system is a 4-2-3-1 and when Torreira and Xhaka played together last season, both produced consistently impressive performances, with Xhaka clearly enjoying having the security of having someone playing slightly behind him.
“Lucas gives us good balance in the team between offence and defence,” the Arsenal skipper said in October last year. “He lets me play my game with the ball and go forward a bit more.”
It’s statements like that which make it so baffling to see the way Torreira has been moved around the midfield throughout the majority of 2019. His absence from the holding role is hurting Arsenal – and is certainly hurting Xhaka.
The former Sampdoria man does looks certain to be handed his second start of the season on Thursday night, however, when Arsenal kick-off their Europa League campaign against Eintracht Frankfurt in Germany.
It’s a big opportunity for Torreira to prove he is sharp enough to start plugging some of the holes that opponents have so brutally exposed this season.
Aaron Ramsey forced his way back into Emery’s Premier League starting XI last season with some impressive performances in Europe. Torreira now has the chance to do
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