By all accounts 2019/20 was destined to be the season when Lucas Torreira took the Premier League by storm. Instead it seems destined to be his last at Arsenal.
The Uruguayan is available to any suitor that wants to sign him. There are several in Italy, where Torreira made his name at Sampdoria before his £27million switch to Arsenal. His former coach Marco Giampaolo would like to bring him to his new team Torino whilst Fiorentina and AC Milan are in the mix for his services.
That is good news for Arsenal, who will be looking to start a bidding war between the Italian clubs that can earn them at least what they invested in the 24-year-old two years ago, although whether those sides can reach such a price in the current financial climate is a matter of some debate.
It is clear, however, that Torreira is the fall guy to make room for Thomas Partey. Two years ago Arsenal were tracking both players in their search for a dynamic midfield presence only to opt for the Uruguayan.
Unai Emery had his doubts about signing such a diminutive force to play at the base of midfield then and so does Mikel Arteta now. The harsh reality is that Torreira has never quite managed to assuage them.
It should be noted that those doubts were never just about whether at 5ft 6in Torreira was simply undersized for a league as physical as the Premier League.
There have certainly been occasions where that has been the case, most memorably a 1-1 draw at Old Trafford in October where he seemed to bounce off Paul Pogba whenever the two competed for a loose ball.
For the most part of his two seasons at Arsenal Torreira has been a voracious defender, a one man dynamo who in his first season ranked in the Premier League’s top 30 for loose ball duels won and possession regained in the opposition half, per Twenty3.
But Arsenal needed more from those at the base of their pivot than the admirable work rate, snap and drive that Torreira brought. As Emery noted in the final weeks of his tenure: “We need that position for the capacity to build up; it’s a big responsibility.
“He can play as a defensive midfielder, but we need a defensive midfielder [to be] offensive because the buildup for us is very important. At the moment, to give him that responsibility as a defensive midfielder who builds up and creates a lot of combinations with our team, he needs more time.
“He’s helping us, he’s sometimes playing well, he’s being consistent, but needs to learn and improve in that issue.”
Such was Emery’s standing with Arsenal supporters at the time that the general consensus was to shoot the messenger not least because the Spaniard had deployed Torreira as a one-man pressing unit higher up the pitch, much to the disillusion of the Uruguayan.
And yet it is apparent how much more effective Arsenal’s build-up play is with Dani Ceballos operating deep as opposed to Torreira, in much the same way as Aaron Ramsey and Granit Xhaka proved to be a dynamic midfield pairing late in Emery’s second season.
Ceballos has learned how to tackle – no Arsenal player made more than his 49 in the Premier League last season – but when he wins the ball back he can progress it upfield either by himself or with a quick pass.
Torreira struggled to do either and for instance completed half as many progressive runs and three-quarters of the forward passes the Spaniard managed this season.
Indeed despite Emery’s public clamouring for improved passing there was no progress in year two. Torreira’s pass completion rate in the Premier League went from 89.29% in year one to 88.84%, all while he was attempting fewer crosses, fewer forward passes and fewer passes in the final third.
It is enough to suggest that Emery was right all along and that Torreira would have been better placed in the advanced role he so recoiled against. If you have a player who is very good at winning the ball but struggles somewhat at distributing it there is a convincing argument that it is best to put him high up the pitch so that all he needs to do is knock it on to the forwards who can do the rest.
Emery does not deserve absolution for his mismanagement of Torreira; the logic of having him leading the press is sound but only if the rest of the team around him function effectively.
What happened instead was the Uruguayan ended up chasing lost causes whilst Arsenal’s front three offered far less energy in pursuit of possession.
It was all too easy for opponents to pass around Torreira, leaving themselves an unobstructed avenue to a defence only protected by an immobile Granit Xhaka.
Torreira was not in the perfect situation for a sophomore surge having played in the 2019 Copa America and returned to find himself deployed in a new position but what signs of progress there have been were stuttering and not built on.
The Uruguayan impressed in a victory over Liverpool sufficiently to convince this writer he was on the path to improvement. The following match against Aston Villa was among the worst in his Arsenal career such that Arteta felt compelled to haul him off at half-time.
From that moment the writing was on the wall. It will be a pity to lose Torreira, a player Arsenal supporters clutched to their hearts so swiftly thanks to his commitment, his fight and his love of a tackle. Yet successive coaches have come to the conclusion that, admirable as those traits are, more is needed in the engine room.
It is hard to see how Torreira can provide it.