Lucas Torreira, the Mighty Insect, embodies Arsenal’s new gritLucas Torreira tangles with Fabinho. ‘Two home fans stood up and spontaneously hugged. Vigour, energy, persistence, grit. What a change to see all of these things.’
Through the late Wenger years there was a familiar theme to the performances of Arsenal’s central midfield. Against stronger opponents the most notable quality was the ability to be both there and not there, to perform as a kind of absence, a midfield-shaped hole.
Fast forward six months and the difference in tone and texture is tangible. Lucas Torreira had been a promising addition going into this visit of Liverpool to the Emirates, sniping with real skill and craft as Arsenal set off on that long winning run against the Premier League’s middleweights. The visit of Jürgen Klopp’s high‑functioning team presented a different kind of challenge, the type of occasion where Arsenal’s central midfield has in the past tended to simply melt away like an autumn frost.
Liverpool confirmed their own progress with a composed, fast‑breaking performance in a 1-1 draw. But it is perhaps the home supporters who will take heart from this fun, frantic, brutally concussive Premier League game. Most significantly, that midfield void was filled by a central midfielder who spent his youth in the corned‑beef port town of Fray Bentos, spiritual home of the tinned meat pie, a fittingly clanky, squat, little object of desire. Enter: Pie Man.
It had looked touch and go. At 1-0 down with eight minutes to go it was tempting to see a familiar story unfolding. Instead other things began to happen. The crowd, so often a whingeing, mardy, doom‑laden presence on nights like these, rose to their feet and punched the air and roared their team on. Most notably Arsenal had Torreira, a player who never looked like he expected to lose, and who led the resistance alongside the excellent Granit Xhaka.
Torreira has been the most notable addition to this team. Along with Xhaka he has been the keystone in a Pulis-style “cage” in front of the defence. Early on the most striking thing about Torreira was how tiny he looked crammed in between his centre-backs, bouncing around the pitch like a beach ball in the wind. As Liverpool pressed he appeared from nowhere to block a shot on the edge of the box. Moments later he materialised on the right to affect a reaching, kung fu interception.
Just past the half-hour the Emirates erupted into a rare barrelling wave of noise as Torreira dumped Sadio Mané on the turf with a perfectly timed roundhouse slide-tackle. It was oddly rousing, like a roomful of convalescents granted a rare glimpse of the sun through the French windows. In front of the press box two home fans stood up and spontaneously hugged. Vigour, energy, persistence, grit. What a change to see all of these things.
At moments such as these Torreira looks like the kind of player who should have a telling nickname, something like the Power Gnome or the Mighty Insect. Certainly Liverpool’s players took a few bites out of him. Time and again he was jounced and hacked at by Fabinho in the clinches. No matter. You don’t get to come through Uruguayan football as a 5ft 5in defensive enforcer without developing a fairly tough hide.
Fabinho was finally booked for clouting Torreira about the ear with a long spidery arm. As he winced back to his feet the Arsenal fans launched into their first rendition of the Torreira song, with its key lyric, “He comes from Uruguay, he’s only five feet high”. It has only been a few months. There’s time to workshop this.
Arsenal were at their best here when the full-backs pulled wide, very deliberately dragging Liverpool’s midfield three with them and diluting the intensity of that midfield press, loosening the stitches inside. In between they fought for every yard of green in the centre and might have taken the lead before Liverpool took a chance of their own with half an hour to go. James Milner finished well after an eye-catching piece of flappy-handed goalkeeping from Bernd Leno, who slapped a cross to the edge of his area. There is a self-fulfilling nature to mistakes such as these. Whatever his level of competence under the high ball, you can be sure Leno will now be targeted.
It was Torreira who led the immediate riposte, drawing a save from Alisson with a shot from the edge of the penalty area. And Torreira was there again, snapping at the fringes, as Lacazette produced a wonderful finish into the far corner to level the scores.
Are Arsenal 2.0 actually any good? It seemed an obvious question coming into this game. For those who watched the late Wenger years closely, there was a sense that a chesterfield settee propped up on the touchline with the words “defend properly” written on it could have wrung some improvement from the squad Wenger passed on. This, though, felt like progress, a performance of real resilience, led by the constant promptings of the man from Fray Bentos.