Outside of Mesut Ozil, if there is any Arsenal player whose stock is lower with Unai Emery then it was twelve months ago, it is surprisingly Lucas Torreira. The Uruguayan, who was indispensable during most of Emery’s first season, is now the odd-man out in Arsenal’s midfield, suffering from the breakout of Matteo Guendouzi and Emery’s insistence on Granit Xhaka. In fairness, Torreira returned late from Copa America, but he has started only two Arsenal games: at home to Tottenham, and away at Manchester United. While that could be argued as indication of trust, as being a big game performer, Torreria was also hauled off in both games, replaced by Ceballos around the hour mark in both.
In both matches, Torreira was played in a different role; indeed, it was one he reprised for his runouts in the Carabao Cup and the Europa League. Rather than sitting deep, Torreira has been used higher up the pitch, in a role reminiscent of how Arsene Wenger at times used Francis Coquelin: a ball-winning midfielder, higher up the pitch. In addition, Torreira has also been the Arsenal midfielder directed with supporting the attacking players, with Aubameyang noticeably crossing for Torreira during the second half.
The use of Torreira as a number 10 coincides with Arsenal becoming more of a transitions based team. Many of their goals this season have come from winning the ball back, and scoring quickly after: Aubameyang against United, Guendouzi’s penalty win against Aston Villa, and Aubameyang’s goals against Burnley and Newcastle. Yet, if Emery is trying to make Arsenal more of a transition based side, that doesn’t stem with their approach off the ball: they sit passively, in a deep block, and then lack numbers moving forward.
Indeed, that dichotomy is represented by Torreira’s role in the team. As a ball-winning midfielder, Torreira spent much of Monday man-marking Paul Pogba. Many of his defensive actions were in Arsenal’s half; yet, most of his on-the-ball contributions were found higher up the pitch, especially in Manchester United’s third. Part of the issue with Arsenal as a counter-attacking team is that the attacking players aren’t suitably supported; with a midfield three of Torreira, Guendouzi, and Xhaka supporting a front three of Bukayo Saka, Nicolas Pepe, and Aubameyang, there wasn’t a player in the side that knit play together. Indeed, what ended up happening was that frequently Torreira was the midfielder supporting the Arsenal attacks. The upshot of this is that Arsenal found it harder to retain possession higher up the pitch.
This is the dichotomy Emery has produced. Without the ability to knit play together or retain possession higher up the pitch, Arsenal cannot control games. Nor can they counter effectively from deep; not when the midfield is one where the player tasked with supporting the attack is a ball-winning midfielder. Yet, by sitting off teams and falling into a deep block, nor can Arsenal be a team that focuses on transitions. There can be moments—as there were against Manchester United, and against Aston Villa—but as Arsenal learned last year under Emery, moments have to be sustained for long-term success, and at present, Arsenal’s chances of success in the long-term this season are at the mercy of Unai Emery’s muddled thinking.