From Arsenal enforcer to makeshift attacker – Torreira exit fears a mess of Emery's own making
The Uruguayan international has hinted he may look to leave the Gunners after growing unsettled in north London
It wasn’t long before Lucas Torreira found himself sat in front of a TV screen at London Colney this week, having arrived back from international duty.
While he had been away with Uruguay, the midfielder’s agent had been openly discussing his player’s future, stating Torreira had been ‘hurt’ by Unai Emery’s decision to play him further up the pitch this season.
Amid reports of interest from clubs in Italy and Spain, Torreira had also spoken out about the situation himself.
“Arsenal needs me to be focused,” he told the Uruguayan media. “I can’t start talking about another team.
“I need to be focused and when the transfer window arrives we will see what will happen.”
The comments caused plenty of concern amongst the Arsenal fanbase and they didn’t go unnoticed back at London Colney.
So when Torreira flew back to England earlier this week, Emery was waiting for him – video clips in hand.
“I spoke with him on Wednesday and Thursday,” said Arsenal’s head coach. “He is young, his process here is starting. He started playing in the Premier League last year and he progressed, but this year again he needs to progress.
“I showed him some movies about his best performances with us and how he can improve.
“He is a very good player, important for us, and his focus needs to be with us 100 per cent. His response to me was positive.”
After his excellent start to life with Arsenal following his move from Sampdoria in the summer of 2018, Torreira has grown more and more unsettled at Emirates Stadium.
The main source of his frustration stems from Emery’s decision to move him away from the defensive midfield position where he excelled in his early months in England and play him in a more advanced role.
“I must say that change has penalised him sharply,” his agent agent Pablo Bentancur revealed.
“He is no longer at ease and we hope that things can change.”
Torreira’s frustration is one that is shared by the majority of Arsenal fans. For years they have craved a ball-winning midfielder who can sit in front of the defence and shield the back four.
And for the first half of last season it looked like they had finally found one.
Torreira was superb, producing a string of impressive performances that culminated in his man of the match display against Tottenham in the north London derby 12 months ago.
“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,” said Gunners legend Martin Keown after the 4-2 win.
“From the first whistle the Uruguayan controlled the midfield. He was utterly fearless, demanding the ball at all times, always eager to snap into tackles and snuff out danger.
“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! He made the midfield his own.”
At that stage, Arsenal fans could not get enough of their new midfield enforcer. Sampdoria even had to take to Twitter to ask supporters to stop clogging up their notifications with tweets thanking them for selling him.
“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 we were going to sign a defensive midfielder. We have got the guy we needed.”
Last November, Torreira won the club’s player of the month award with more than 70 per cent of the votes. So it seems remarkable that now, 12 months on, the possibility of him leaving appears to be growing by the week.
Ahead of Saturday’s meeting with Southampton, Torreira has started just four Premier League games, with Matteo Guendouzi and Granit Xhaka the preferred choice of Emery in midfield – prior to Xhaka’s spat with the Arsenal fans.
Emery reassured Torreira this week that he still has a ‘big future’ at Arsenal – but called for greater consistency from the 23-year-old.
“He needs to improve,” said the Spaniard. “This year he’s not being consistent. My challenge to him is to do better with some tactical issues on the pitch and above all take consistency into the next matches.”
The problem is, however, that given the way the Spaniard has handled the Uruguayan since the turn of the year, it is hardly a surprise that his performance levels has dipped.
He’s been in and out of the side and whenever he has played, it’s been in an advanced position that he is far from comfortable with.
The change in role stems from Emery having doubts over Torreira’s ability to start attacks from deep. Simply speaking, Arsenal’s head coach does not believe he is good enough on the ball.
“We need a defensive midfielder [to be] offensive because the build-up for us is very important,” said Emery, when pressed specifically on why Torreira’s role has changed.
“To give Lucas that responsibility of building up and creating a lot of combinations with our team, he needs more time to learn or improve in that issue.”
The problem for Emery is, however, without Torreira in that deeper midfield role Arsenal’s defence is being left wide open for the opposition to attack.
For the majority of the season it’s been Xhaka who has been tasked with offering the backline protection. But he is not mobile enough and has been left totally isolated at times in games.
The lack of defensive cover in midfield becomes clear when you look at the statistics. Arsenal are conceding an average of 1.42 goals a game this season, their worst ever rate in a Premier League campaign.
In all competitions, they are conceding on average 16.4 shots per game, more than any other season since Opta started compiling stats.
It’s clear that what Emery is trying in midfield this season isn’t working and if he’s not careful he could end up losing a player who seemed destined to become a linchpin in the Arsenal side for years to come.
With Xhaka’s exit almost inevitable, whether it be in January or the summer, Emery now needs Torreira more than ever. How he manages the midfielder over the coming months will be key.
Arsenal need to find some balance in midfield again and the best man to provide that is Torreira. The sooner Emery realises that the better it will be for everyone.