The race to sign world-class central midfielders goes on in perpetuity. The holy grail for any manager hoping to get his team in contention for continental and domestic success is often founded on an unbreakable core: the carrilero.
The carrilero is a role that has been essentially pioneered by the legendary Blaugrana defensive midfielder Sergio Busquets and, most recently, the illustrious N’Golo Kanté. It requires the midfielder to cover the lateral areas of the pitch, forming a one-man barrier ahead of the defence while feeding passes into the final-third when in possession.
Perhaps the most game-changing coach that football will ever see, Johan Cruyff, never minced his words when it came to the prominence of his uneven 4-4-2 diamond formation. However, what went under the radar for the spectators, but never for Cruyff, was the defensive midfielder.
“There is only one ball, so you need to have it,” said Cruyff, as he highlighted the deepest of his four midfielders – he demanded ball retention, and this was only possible with his ever-cardinal Pep Guardiola. Twenty-six years have passed since Cruyff’s European Cup win with Barcelona, and his protégé, Pep, has failed to err in his recognition of the elegant, ruthless-yet-ethereal, Sergio Busquets.
As Busquets wanes with age, N’Golo Kanté rises like the Falcon Heavy, ascending to astronomical heights. What they have in common – amongst the likes of Matić, Casemiro and Fernandinho – is their everlasting ability to break the lines, to read the game seven or eight moves before they occur with an almost superhuman precognition. Their simplicity is deceptive, their influence boundless, engendering a fluidity for players sitting ahead of them that creates football good enough for us to fall in love with the game once more.
They contain this innate intellectual overview of football that few players in the game can boast – the kind that can often be overlooked for its intangible, invisible, to the eyes of many, hold. With great carrilero-esque defensive midfielders rising and falling from their predecessors’ mantles, there appears to be one more that promises to do his role justice: Lucas Torreira.
When it was announced that Lucas Torreira had signed for Arsenal on July 11th, many were surprised with the ruthlessness and efficiency of Arsenal’s business. It came as a coup, a deal that was reportedly struck with Torreira’s former club Sampdoria before the World Cup.
Torreira is a midfielder best described as a blend between pass-master PSG’s Marco Verratti and Sergio Busquets. With his vision, strength, positioning and mentality, the 22-year-old promises to excel in the most physical league in the world with Arsenal.
Like his on-field demeanour, Lucas Torreira’s rise to the big league came with grit and commitment. Leaving his hometown of Fray Bentos he moved to the big city, Montevideo, at just 16 years of age, in pursuance of his childhood dream.
His rise in Italy has surprised no-one and his figures paint a picture, but not the whole picture. Torreira made more interceptions, 87, than any other midfielder in Serie A in 2016/17, a time when he was just 20-years-old. Since then, he has won the most tackles (198) and made the most interceptions (158) in Serie A.
What the stats fail to recognise is Torreira’s mentality – having seen him in his outings for Uruguay in the World Cup, his calmness on and off the ball is paramount to his consistency throughout every game where he takes the field. His positional awareness enables him to boast the figures mentioned above. His tactical understanding of the game entails a footballing intelligence that can be traced back to some of the greats that have mastered the defensive midfield position while breaking the lines.
Arsenal have had a void – an abyss that swallowed up a dark decade that has bore witness to a plethora of defensive collapses – to fill since the days of Gilberto Silva. Torreira can be that man to bridge the literal gap between the defensive line and the somewhat dynamic and attacking midfield that lies ahead of him on the pitch. With his passing success rate standing at 87.4% in the 2017/18 Serie A season, he is certainly not lacking in the archetypal possession-oriented football that Arsenal are renowned for playing.
The Unai Emery era will be built with Torreira at the very heart of it – an intense, pressing game off the ball, a quick, short-passing game on the ball. This signing can be seen as one with multi-faceted benefits – not only does he present a solution to a decade-long problem, but he eases in freedom for the dynamic and paramount Aaron Ramsey to drive forward into the opposition’s box.
Torreira may also hold the key to unlocking the shackles tied to one of the greatest playmakers of all-time, Mesut Özil. The Uruguayan may be the gift left on Arsenal’s doorstep by the footballing Gods, the North London club finally unearthing their long-lost carrilero.