Santi Cazorla departed the Emirates this summer as an Arsenal hero, idolised by fans and revered around Europe for his ability to bend games to his will.
He is a player the Gunners will sorely miss, but in truth, they have needed a replacement for the Spaniard for some time, with injuries restricting him to just 23 appearances in the last three Premier League seasons – the last of which coming way back in October 2016.
Solutions to fill the void Cazorla’s absence left in the Arsenal midfield were sought, but none proved adequate. Finally though, thanks to his £26.4million arrival from Sampdoria in July, in Lucas Torreira the Gunners have a deep-lying playmaker worthy of filling Cazorla’s boots, only he is yet to start for his new side.
With a 20-minute cameo in Arsenal’s latest fixture, a 3-2 victory away to newly-promoted Cardiff City, Torreira demonstrated exactly why he should be considered the new general of the Arsenal midfield; it’s time for the Uruguayan to displace the underwhelming Granit Xhaka.
Xhaka joined Arsenal from Borussia Mönchengladbach for £30million in the summer of 2016. The Swiss, who arrived with a fiery reputation, was supposed to be the man to inject the kind of steel and dynamism absent from the Gunners’ midfield since Patrick Vieira’s departure more than a decade earlier.
But, two years into his Arsenal career, it remains difficult to define exactly what Xhaka offers: although a slick enough passer, he is not penetrative; his left foot is capable of thumping strikes from range, but he is no regular goal threat; he likes to position himself at the base of midfield, yet he offers little in the way of protection to his back four.
Against Cardiff, Torreira displayed all of the traits Xhaka lacks.
Xhaka was the game’s top passer with 85 successful passes from 99 attempts. But Torreira found a red shirt with every one of his 26 attempted passes after coming on for youngster Mattéo Guendouzi in the 70th minute.
Torreira was the one who provided an authoritative presence in the middle third, taking responsibility for driving his side forward by dropping deep to collect the ball and applying his passing acumen to manoeuvre his colleagues around the pitch like a chess master would his pieces.
He wasn’t simply playing it safe, either; several of Torreira’s passes saw him receive the ball under pressure and quickly release it to a team-mate further forward, often splitting Cardiff men as he did so.
The progressive nature of Torreira’s play was evidenced by the fact just 26 per cent of his passes (six out of 26) were played backwards; Xhaka, contrastingly, played 34 per cent of his completed passes (29 of 85) back towards his own goal.
And while Torreira never demonstrated a direct goal threat during his 20 minutes against the Bluebirds, he did show a willingness to get forward when the time called.
It was his clever pass into the penalty area which provided the assist for Alexandre Lacazette‘s 81st-minute winner, with the French forward lashing home at the near post to secure Arsenal’s second win of the new season.
But had Lacazette opted to pull the ball back from his acute shooting angle, or had Cardiff’s goalkeeper, Neil Etheridge, managed to parry the striker’s effort, Torreira was well positioned to profit, having continued his forward movement after releasing Lacazette and picking up a pocket of space in a dangerous central position.
If manager Unai Emery intends to persist with the 4-2-3-1 formation he has favoured thus far in north London, a double pivot of Torreira and Guendouzi would offer control and thrust, with the teenage Frenchman’s energy perfectly complimenting the considered control and astute positioning of the former Sampdoria playmaker.
The two would provide an ideal base for the likes of Mesut Özil, Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Aaron Ramsey to create from ahead of them, serviced with quality passes into key zones while sufficiently protected should their creative efforts cough up possession.
Ever since Arsène Wenger took change more than two decades ago, Arsenal have been the Premier League side most defined by domination of possession – until Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City got into full swing, that is.
But, without Cazorla as the scheming conductor, they have too often lacked purpose on the ball in recent seasons. That need no longer be the case with Torreira in tow.