Lucas Torreira: Arsenal's Little Pacman Giving the Gunners Lessons in Tenacity
Nobody quite knew what to expect when Lucas Torreira was linked with Arsenal over the summer of 2018. But everyone had the same question - how can a player who isn't even five-and-a-half feet tall survive as a defensive midfielder in the Premier League?
That question was answered when the 22-year-old played as a deep-lying pivot for Oscar Tabarez's Uruguay at the World Cup in Russia. The man held his own with 25 tackles and interceptions in 300 minutes underlining his credentials.
But it wasn't his stats that made people sit up and notice. It was his approach to dutifully doing what was required of him with military discipline. And a highlight reel of his career so far will certainly include that one duel with Cristiano Ronaldo.
Embodying the popular phrase 'Garra Charrúa' (Charrúan tenacity), Torreira simply outmuscled the Portuguese superstar off the ball, leaving the five-time Ballon d'Or winner on the turf bewildered at how the smallest man on the pitch had knocked him down to prevent a certain Portuguese counter-attack.
"It is a way of living football, it is the way all Uruguayans grow up, it is the way we play football in our neighbourhoods. The ‘Garra Charrua’ is inside every Uruguayan." - Lucas Torreira on Arsenal's official website
Soon after, Torreira was on his way to Arsenal. Serie A side Sampdoria received a handsome £26.4m for his services and the Gunners had a pocket dynamite waiting to be unleashed on the Premier League.
Chief scout Sven Mislintat and the recruiting team had certainly done their homework. In the last two Serie A seasons combined, Torreira led every player in tackles made, most minutes played by a midfielder, and made the most interceptions and recoveries by a midfielder.
When Sampdoria played Barcelona in a pre-season friendly, Luis Suarez didn't even know Torreira was Uruguayan until he asked him for a photo after the game. How was he to know - Torreira wouldn't make his Uruguayan debut until 2018 - a few months before the World Cup.
In the end, though, it was Suarez himself who convinced Torreira to join Arsenal.
In a world where most superstar footballers at the biggest clubs remain aloof, here was a young player who had been taught to remain humble. It runs in the family. The Torreiras weren't exactly well off in Uruguay and it wasn't until he had made his move to Arsenal that Lucas got his family a butcher's shop in his hometown of Fray Bentos.
When Arsenal were one of the first big clubs to show their interest in him, his father ensured he would go there even though a medical was done only after the World Cup so he could focus on Uruguay's campaign in Russia.
When the move was complete and his family visited London for the first time, he had just one question for the Arsenal staff: "Does my son say 'Good morning' to people?"
It comes from an upbringing where nothing is taken for granted and gratitude is always shown to people ready to help. Back when Torreira was a teenager, he had found himself stranded in Montevideo without accommodation when he was looking to become a professional player at Peñarol.
It was his boyhood club Institución Atlética 18 de Julio that came to his rescue immediately by collecting the funds to bring him back. Torreira was so grateful that he even has a tattoo of 18 de Julio’s crest on his right leg to serve as a reminder of his roots and early struggles.
When Torreira scored his first goal for Arsenal (in the North London Derby of all occasions), a video emerged of his father in the meat shop screaming "Goalazzo, Goalazzo!" at the television in disbelief. There was pride in his voice as he choked up on seeing his son, topless, sliding on his knees to the corner flag before he was engulfed by his teammates.
Filling the void in Arsenal's midfield
The fact that Torreira started his youth career as a forward before he was transformed into a defensive midfielder is not known to many. He was told early on during his time at Italian club Pescara that despite his close control and eye for goal, he would not progress as a forward beyond Serie C (Italy's third division).
It was Massimo Oddo (Pescara's U-19 coach at the time) that was behind the transformation. Torreira, ever ready to impress, absorbed everything like a sponge.
"If you explain a tactical movement to Lucas once, he will put it into practice forever." - Massimo Oddo
The little Uruguayan soon became a master at reading the game. So good was he that, at the time, many thought he could be an understudy to Andrea Pirlo at Juventus.
The move to Arsenal certainly benefited Unai Emery but more so another player who was struggling to come to terms with the Premier League - Granit Xhaka.
Many had given up on Xhaka by the end of last season. The Swiss midfielder who cost the Gunners £35m was written off as a liability because he simply couldn't play the role of a defensive midfielder.
But that was the problem; he wasn't one. He was essentially a deep-lying playmaker who wasn't being coached on how to adapt to the new position. But once he was paired with Torreira, the difference in his game was colossal.
Xhaka now has the freedom to play his actual role and dictate the game from midfield while Torreira does the "dirty work". Xhaka can now focus on receiving the ball from Arsenal's defenders and initiating attacks while Torreira also makes himself useful with the occasional bursts forward when he isn't busy shielding the defence.
At Sampdoria, Torreira played in a 4-3-1-2 alongside Dennis Praet and Karol Linetty. At Arsenal, he has had to adapt to a midfield with just two players in what is usually a 4-2-3-1 formation.
"If Torreira were 1.8 metres tall, he would already cost €100m and would be considered among the strongest playmakers in the world.” - Sampdoria manager Marco Giampaolo
The results are there for all to see. Arsenal have scored 28 goals and conceded 11 when he is on the pitch. When he is on the bench, the Gunners have scored only 4 goals and conceded 9 in 295 minutes.
The North London Derby is a turning point not only for Torreira but also for the club. It may have been his third Man of the Match performance in four games but the comeback from 2-1 down to win 4-2 against their local rivals may not have been possible in Wenger's final years with the squad well-known for rolling over rather than fighting back.
Torreira's never-say-die attitude has rubbed off on the rest of the squad who have dug deep to find their own Garra Charrúa even when they're running on empty. It's one of the reasons why they are predominantly a second-half side so far this term, having never led at half-time in the league.
In 2016/17, N'Golo Kante broke a stranglehold on the PFA Player of the Year award by ensuring it did not go to an attacking player. Although Arsenal may not win the league title this season, it does not mean that Torreira's contributions to the team will go unnoticed.
And it won't be long before the shortest man on the pitch is the one everyone looks up to when the chips are down.