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Ever since Patrick Vieira got bored of Arsene Wenger’s fruitless possession-based football, abandoning his colossal pair of boots, every single enforcer that followed fell short.
Mathieu Flamini. Abou Diaby. Alex Song. Denilson. Francis Coquelin. Granit Xhaka. The list is exhausting. At just five foot, Lucas Torreira was least expected. Surprisingly, however, the Uruguayan has fit in with aplomb.
Vieira’s arrival in England coincided with Arsene Wenger’s.
“I am delighted to be joining Arsenal at the same time as Mr Wenger becomes their coach,” he said in 1996. After a miserable experiment at AC Milan, the Frenchman’s rising stock crashed considerably. There wasn’t the usual buzz when he joined. Paparazzi went on holidays.
Seven seasons on, Vieira who could barely utter a word in English became club captain. The lanky midfielder worked his way into the hearts of North Londoners with strong performances. Under his incredible leadership, the Gunners clinched three Premier League titles, even going unbeaten in the 03/04 campaign.
As well as being strong and technically gifted, Vieira was mentally a ferocious opponent. His distinctive lengthy gait allowed him to cover ground with deceptive speed, and though his tall frame at times looked a little spindly, there could be little doubting the raw power of the central midfielder.
No wonder Wenger’s dozen years search ended in vain. Vieira left heavy cracks in the Gunners midfield following his switch to Juventus in 2005. All those that came afterwards either lacked pedigree, steel, technique or physical attributes embodied in the striding, surging Frenchman. Some didn’t have any.
Unai Emery spotted that void in the summer. Jack Wilshere had moved East to join West Ham. Mohamed Elneny didn’t fit the bill. Xhaka too. Both technically gifted players, albeit, lacked the extra fuel to run the engine. Emery didn’t hesitate to exchange £26 million with Sampdoria for Torreira.
It took a number of games for the Uruguayan to get acquainted with his new abode. But since the ritual’s completion, he has integrated quite nicely. After a number of astute performances from the bench, Torreira was rewarded with three succesive starts. He played a key role in the 5-1 win over Fulham at Craven Cottage on Sunday, screening the defence well and leading his side in ball recoveries.
Aside diminutive stature, Torreira appears to be an entirely different package. An orchestrator, he is a specialist in interception with excellent spatial awareness.
Where midfielders so often had free roles under Wenger – an approach which worked well for someone with the flair, charisma and natural leadership of Vieira, but less so for those who came after – Torreira seems to have a defined position and to be able to execute it effectively.
Instead of attempting to reproduce the striding, box-to-box style of Vieira in the midfield, Emery has opted for a more anchored footballer who can recycle the ball and shield the back four when necessary.
While Torreira no doubt frees up Granit Xhaka and Aaron Ramsey, there is not a standalone midfield talisman at the moment so much as an organised unit which Torreira looks increasingly ready to run.
His presence has obviously bettered individual players and the team. Xhaka, in particular. With Torreira, the Swiss star is now more aggressive up the field, having to do less dirty work.
Arsenal, meanwhile, found the net 10 times, conceding one less without the 22-year-old. In contrast, they’ve notched 20, shipping in just three.