We’re beyond the point when midfielders are sorted into two distinct categories, they are no longer only ball-winners or players. At the top of the game and even from goalkeepers forward, technical ability is imperative in every position. There’s no room for stoppers and destroyers anymore.
At Arsenal, perhaps that evolution was allowed to continue for too long and at too great a pace. Arsene Wenger must surely have recognised that his side lacked certain core principles, but summer on summer he would either ignore them completely, or attempt to plot his way around them with finesse.
As a case point, the club have needed a central midfielder for as long as anyone can care to remember – one in the exact mould of Lucas Torreira, the Uruguayan scheduled to arrive in London this week. Torreira can certainly play. He has a fine, ableit not overly-expansive passing range, and he’s not short of technique. To describe him as a defensive midfielder wouldn’t necessarily be wrong, but it would be reductive: he’s clearly capable of making a contribution in both halves of the field and has shown that capacity at Sampdoria.
Nevertheless, it will be a signing pointed towards an urgent need. Torreira is exactly the sort of nuggety protector that a whole generation of Arsenal defenders have had to do without and it makes perfect sense that he should be among the first wave of signings made under Unai Emery.
It’s logical. But it’s also interesting, because it demonstrates that while Arsenal and Wenger were often assumed to be as one, this activity, so soon after his resignation, shows a clear separation between his beliefs and theirs. The club’s technical structure has been renovated over the past eighteen months, so some divergence was inevitable, but this initial transfer movement (which also includes the uncomprimising Stephan Lichtsteiner and tough Borussia Dortmund centre-half Sokratis Papastathopoulos) betrays just how aware they were of his blindspots. For all intents and purposes, it represents a correction.
Wenger would never have signed any of those players. Should he have recognised the same deficiencies in his side, he would have tried to address them while remaining loyal to his guiding principles. The ball was always more important. Therefore, anybody tasked with shielding a back-line (as Torreira primarily will be) would have had to be an asset in possession first and a defensive reinforcement second.
The result of that deference, clearly, was that problems were only ever met with half-solutions and Arsenal developed this capacity for retaining the same each and every season. The nature of the failure was usually different, but it could always be traced back to familiar roots: a lack of discipline, an inability to compete in bigger fixtures, and a failure to cope with physicality.
Torreira is a response to that. He is not just a set of attributes aimed at a deficiency, but a player who opposes an entire belief system and represents a clear departure from the past. It’s less a transfer, more the beginning of an entirely new movement.