When Gilberto Silva packed his bags and left north London in 2008, Lucas Torreira was 12 and, one imagines, spent most of his free time frantically kicking an empty pie tin up and down the dusty streets of his native Fray Bentos.
And whilst the young Torreira had almost certainly heard of Gilberto – he had captained Brazil to glory at the Copa América just a year before – he probably hadn’t given much time to mulling over how Arsenal would replace their imposing defensive midfielder. At that point, of course, that was not his responsibility.
Unfortunately for Arsenal fans, it seemed Arsène Wenger had spent equally little time considering the issue. Years passed, and the question continued to be asked.
In the intervening post-Gilberto, late-Wenger period, Arsenal signed a grand total of Mathieu Flamini (again), Mohamed Elneny and Granit Xhaka to cover the position, and spent a long while relying on the questionable abilities of Francis Coquelin. The narrative built and consumed all, becoming central to the Wenger-Out brigade’s regular protests.
Finally, a decade later, the Gilberto Silva problem has been solved. Lucas Torreira, that little boy from a fairly inconsequential Uruguayan town, has filled the void left by the ‘Invisible Wall’. Or at least that is what we are constantly told.
Arsenal fans are enamoured; pundits too. “I love him”, said Martin Keown, who rarely utters those words about anything. Ian Wright, meanwhile, beamed, “He’s the guy we’ve been looking for for the last four or five years… He’s magnificent.” And Paul Merson weighed in too, “They’ve been crying out for someone like him since Gilberto Silva and Patrick Vieira.”
Torreira, however, does not really have a great deal in common with Gilberto. The latter was a converted centre-half, a substantial physical screen for his back four who rarely ventured over the half-way line.
The five-foot-five-inch Torreira, on the other hand, started out in the youth ranks at Montevideo Wanderers and Pescara as a number 10. He is energetic, eating up ground like few others in the Premier League, and fits more into the mould of a modern, all-round midfielder than the out-and-out blocker.
That long-standing narrative, though, is a powerful force. It would not really be satisfying to admit that football has changed, and that as a result, Arsenal didn’t really need a Gilberto replacement any more. Having the diminutive Uruguayan as a way to tie up that loose defensive midfield end fulfils our innate desire for the stories we create to have neat beginnings and middles and pleasing ends.
The 22-year-old is an excellent defender, of course, but the way he defends does not fit the traditional stereotype of midfield protector. He is not the sort of big, strapping, static presence we had imagined as the replacement for Vieira, Gilberto and Emmanuel Petit, however much we would like him to be.
He is, though, a perfect fit for manager Unai Emery’s intense playing style. Torreira charges across the turf, sniffing out danger before it develops, as a consequence finding himself in positions to initiate attacks when he regains possession. And, owing to his development years as an attacking midfielder, he has the technique and imagination to make things happen from those positions.
Everyone expected the unflagging effort and determination when he arrived from Sampdoria in the summer, it is part of the Uruguayan football DNA, but it is that extra quality which has so pleasantly surprised supporters on the red side of north London.
He recently scored goals against Tottenham and Huddersfield – an athletic overhead effort that will go down as the tap-in of the season – and has provided assists in the draw with Manchester United and win over Cardiff.
His tactical flexibility also aids Emery, who is fond of changing formation mid-way through games. Torreira has already played various roles in a 4-2-3-1 and 3-5-2, has covered space in a 3-4-3 and has even been asked to do a shift on the right of a 4-4-2 for 45 minutes against Fulham.
It is perhaps the case, then, that Torreira has filled more of an emotional void than a positional one. Fans like to see people on the pitch who play as they would given the chance (and a lot more talent) – a tenacious presence constantly willing to get stuck in and put opponents under physical pressure.
Gary Neville summed it up best on Sky Sports after Arsenal had overcome Huddersfield. “If you look at him in the derby last week, getting into the box, it’s like he’s this bundle of energy that everybody else in the team responds to.”
Torreira has not just made a personal contribution but is getting another five percent out of those around him.
On Wednesday night, Emery’s team will once again face Tottenham for a place in the semi-final of the Carabao Cup and the little midfielder has a record to maintain. In four editions of the Derby della Lanterna in Italy, he won three and drew one. In the north London derby so far, he has remained unbeaten.
But if you had to choose a Premier League player to slot into your team for a game against your local rivals – a tireless battler, a player to lay everything on the line to hand you the bragging rights – there wouldn’t be many higher on the list than Torreira.