Lucas Torreira to Arsenal: Who is he, what will he bring and what sort of World Cup did he have?
The pleasures of watching a World Cup are manifold, and observing a new signing play for a country you would otherwise ignore is one such delight. Arsenal supporters will recall Tomas Rosicky's screamer for Czech Republic against USA at the 2006 finals, and this summer they cast an eye on Uruguayan midfielder Lucas Torreira, the Sampdoria ball-winner they have signed for a fee of around £25 million spread over three years.
Accused of sloth in the market during summers past, Arsenal's new recruitment team do seem to be operating with decisiveness and efficiency in this window. The competence of those decisions will ultimately be judged on the pitch next season, but the fact decisions are being made to fit a (presumable) plan is reason for cautious encouragement. After the slightly prosaic signings of Stephan Lichtsteiner and Sokratis Papastathopoulos, Torreira's arrival is their most exciting purchase yet.
The career so far...
The 22-year-old Uruguay international arrived in Italy as a teenager in 2014 and made his way through the ranks at Pescara. That is the same grounding enjoyed by everyone's favourite deep-lying playmaker with a touch of needle Marco Verratti, to whom Torreira is often compared. Intriguingly, Torreira played as a striker in his formative years before being moved back into midfield - kudos to whoever made that decision.
At Pescara he was coached by the brother of Sampdoria manager Marco Giampaolo, who we can safely assumer gave Torreira a glowing reference when he moved to the Genovese club in 2016.
He has flourished since, making 71 Serie A starts over the past two seasons largely from the base of Sampdoria's midfield diamond. International recognition arrived and he was named in Oscar Tabarez's Uruguay squad for the 2018 World Cup.
What sort of World Cup did he have?
Torreira played the final few minutes of Uruguay's 1-0 win over Egypt from the bench, too little time to make a serious impression. He also started as a substitute in their second group game against Saudi Arabia, but this time played more than 30 minutes in a deep central midfield position.
A change of system from Tabarez made room for Torriera to start Uruguay's final group game against Russia, and he kept his place against Portugal in the last-16.
Torreira's disciplined performance at the base of midfield demonstrated his defensive awareness with four blocked shots, four clearances and two interceptions. He rarely strayed from in front of his two centre-backs as Uruguay funneled Portugal's advances to the flanks in a 2-1 win.
Arsenal fans were also impressed by his commitment to the cause, and a clip of Torreira throwing his head in front of a loose ball was shared approvingly on social media. Cristiano Ronaldo also bounced off a Torriera shoulder barge.
Torreira played 90 minutes in Uruguay's limp quarter-final exit to France, in which they struggled to cope with the absence of Edinson Cavani.
What sort of player is he?
Torreira has been described as a deep-lying playmaker and a defensive midfielder and it is worth delineating some of this positional sectarianism. At five foot six, one thing he definitely is not is the 'powerful', physically imposing enforcer that many Arsenal fans have craved since the departure of Patrick Vieira. This is not necessarily a cause for alarm. N'Golo Kante and Fernandinho are hardly giants, but have excelled in title-winning midfields. In the modern game where 'transitions' are so important - the few seconds after you lose possession and the few seconds after you win it back - agility, anticipation and speed are increasingly prized over brute strength.
Only Lucas Leiva won more tackles than Torreira among midfielders in Serie A last season, while only four midfielders completed more passes. So while Torreira was tethered to the base of Sampdoria''s midfield, he contributed both defensively and to their build-up play with the ball - the destructive and constructive aspects of football if you will.
In this excellent analysis of Tottenham's Mousa Dembele last season, my colleague Alistair Tweedale wrote of how the Belgian redefined the notion of the 'box-to-box midfielder'. Dembele affected play offensively and defensively without actually running through the thirds of the pitch, but by patrolling central areas. He was everywhere and yet often stationery.
Torreira possesses something similar, though at 22 does have plenty of energy and snap to his play. He makes up for his diminutive frame by anticipating loose balls very well, perhaps a legacy of his time as a striker waiting for the things to drop in box, while possessing the speed to make sure he gets there first. With a low centre of gravity, Torreira is also adept at shielding the ball under pressure which is a real asset against intense pressing.
So, Arsenal's potential new signing is neither one thing nor the other. He is neither a 'destroyer' nor quite a pure playmaker in the mould of Andrea Pirlo or Napoli's Jorginho. In short, he could be a link between both departments.
Where will he fit in?
One can only speculate about how Unai Emery will arrange his new charges, but there is no doubt that Torriera would be a welcome midfield addition. A feature, and a problem, with Arsenal's core over the past few years has been the idiosyncratic combinations comprised of 'specialists'. Santi Cazorla and Francis Coquelin, or Granit Xhaka and Aaron Ramsey.
In isolation, these partnerships were quite effective but relied heavily on individual attributes. Cazorla needed Coquelin's athleticism and defensive output, Coquelin needed Cazorla's technical quality to cover his own shortcomings, Xhaka needs Ramsey's legs and Ramsey needs Xhaka's distribution from deep. None of those players could function with any other partner against serious opposition. Remove one card, and the house tumbles.
From a squad building perspective, Torreira will be a real asset because he can play with multiple partners in the 4-2-3-1 which is reported to be Emery's preference. He has enough defensive nous and ball-winning capabilities to combine nicely with Xhaka as the main playmaker, but is a good enough passer himself to play with Ramsey and counter-balance the Welshman's off-the-ball style.
Of course, the three of them could combine in a 4-3-3, but that raises the thorny issue of shunting Mesut Ozil wide. Unless of course, Emery plays the four of them in a diamond behind Alexandre Lacazette and Pierre Emerick-Aubameyang. Promising on paper, but not a system the Spaniard has used in the past. With Emery yet to manage a game at the Emirates, we are grasping in the dark somewhat.
Who will miss out?
Aaron Ramsey is yet to sign a new contract, and reports state he will be sold this summer if he refuses. That would see likely see Torreira installed as Xhaka's partner with Ozil ahead of them in the No.10 position. Should Ramsey stay (good news, to be clear) then the situation is more complex.
There is a widespread antipathy to Xhaka despite his post-January improvement when he showed more defensive rigour. Many will call for him to be thrown on the scrapheap, but Emery enjoyed working with similar types in the form of Steven Nzoni and Grzegorz Krychowiak at Sevilla. If Xhaka's form continues he could be difficult to dislodge, and many feel there is a serious player there within a more structured set-up.
We are yet to mention Henrikh Mkhitrayan, Alex Iwobi or Ainsley Maitland-Niles either - or even the potential for a new winger. Every player has a clean slate under Emery, and there could be a hell of a fight to get in the team.