Lucas Torreira: The Maestro Within Sampdoria’s System

There’s almost a perpetual arms race that goes on in European football for central midfielders, especially CMs who have shown the versatility to play in deeper positions. It can be argued that Liverpool have been in desperate need of a defensive midfielder who can help them control games at a better rate than they’re currently on, Manchester United need more reinforcements in that position to unlock Paul Pogba’s best position as the furthest midfielder in a 4–3–3, Arsenal’s midfield core has seen better days, and even Manchester City’s dalliance with Fred from Shakhtar Donetsk signals that they’re looking for reinforcements. If you’re a club with a stabilized midfield rotation, you’re one step ahead in the cat and mouse game known as roster construction.

Lucas Torreira is a name you may have not heard of unless you’re an avid Serie A watcher, but that’ll definitely change in the near future as his name gets linked with some of the major clubs in European Football. He’s been compared to the likes of Marco Verratti, which is high praise considering where Verratti stands in the hierarchy of central midfielders in European Football. It’s debatable as to whether he’ll be quite as good of a player once he hits his prime years, but there’s no doubt that the Uruguayan is a multifaceted player that’s got a long and successful career ahead of him.

Sampdoria primarily work with a diamond formation in which Torreira acts as the base of the three man midfield. When you watch them play, you can see how much compactness is stressed with the high volume of short passing in their build up play, creating shapes within the pitch for passing outlets as they progress the ball in such a methodical manner that will eventually lead to shooting opportunities. It allows Sampdoria to create situations where the opposition are attracted so much by the passer and the player receiving the ball, that connections are formed on the pitch and a third teammate can be reached by a pass, referred as “the third man”.

Torreira is important in the build-up phases for Sampdoria. He’s the one that operates as the base, positioning himself in close proximity with the centerbacks. Because of his ability to be cool under pressure, he can either pass it off to a teammate nearby or play a long pass up to the likes of Fabio Quagliarella and Duván Zapata so they can hold up play and play short passes/layoffs for other teammates in higher positions.

What makes Sampdoria quite interesting in comparison to other teams is that under their manager Marco Giampaolo, their fullbacks in Ivan Strinic and Bartosz Bereszynski don’t start up in high positions when the buildup begins, rather they stay closer to a level position with the centerback combination of Matías Silvestre and Gianmarco Ferrari.

It’s an interesting trade-off in the sense that you’re theoretically giving up whatever advantage you might have from employing two extra players in advanced positions, and instead keeping a most solid base of 4 for moments where the opposition try and spring counter attacks. Most teams that play some form of a diamond formation in today’s game have their fullbacks bomb up and down the pitch to maintain some form of width to complement the central superiority. You can make an argument about how much it’s actually worked for Sampdoria. Their attacking numbers whether it be shots or expected goals are above average, yet they’re 7th last in shots conceded and in the bottom five in expected goals conceded.

When the ball is further up the pitch, Torreira maintains his importance as a viable outlet for his teammates. While off the ball, he’s quite clever in using body shifts to maneuver himself into openings on the pitch. When he feels like someone is about to close him down before receiving a pass, he’ll simply shift himself away from the marker before actually collecting the pass. It’s nothing overly major, but an illustration of the cleverness in his repertoire.

One of the things that I found most impressive with Lucas Torreira when looking at the video is the ease in which he hits long passes, and the variety to which he can hit it. This is born out in the data itself with Played Off The Park’s brilliant piece which tried to use statistical data and the use of z-score application in finding which players fit which archetype of midfielders. Torreira came out fairly well in relation to other players of his age group when it came to deeper midfielders, taking volume into account. Torreira is capable of attempting different kinds of long passes, whether it be while he’s got acres of space to settle down and pick out his target or being hurried by an opposition marker. It’s this kind of versatility that makes him an intriguing player.

It also helps that he’s flashed the ability to be able to get past players from deeper positions and carry the ball into further areas of the pitch, showing off that diversity to his game that clubs want in today’s game from midfielders. He’s not just press resistant off the ball, but he’s shown that he can be on the ball as well to some extent.

The same level of emphasis on compactness and the collective that goes into the attack applies as well on the defensive side. Sampdoria employ a counterpressing style when loss of possession occurs in the middle areas of the pitch. Because of how closely connected the players are when advancing the ball, it allows them to immediately hunt for the ball like a pack of hyenas to regain possession. It’s not full-proof as a strategy, just like any other strategy in football, as it can be taken advantage of if the opposition has enough individual talent to bypass the initial onslaught.

Watching Torreira attempt tackles during counterpressing moments, and just in general, can be quite the experience. He’ll have his moments where he mistimes his approach and get beat, setting off a chain of reaction that lead to opportunities the other way but when it does work, he’ll use his 5’4–5’5 height to nibble at the feet of taller opponents and wrestle possession away from them.

There’s a lot to like about Torreira’s game. There’ll be some who point out that his height for his position can lead to flaws in terms of aerial prowess, albeit there are numerous defensive midfielders with similar size who have compensated with other areas of strength. Perhaps the fairest critique of his play is that during possible transition scenarios, he slows down the pace a bit more than you would like and opts for safer passes towards teammates rather than try and connect on a home run pass, though perhaps that’s one of the trade-offs of playing within such a methodical structure. It’s fair to wonder whether in a different environment that more so embraces chaos and variance during transition play, he’s able to perform to the same level.

Lucas Torreira is really talented, and it could be argued that he’s one of the best defensive midfielders in Europe within the 18–22 age group. You don’t find a lot of mobile defensive midfielders with a high level of coordination on the ball at his young age, especially when adding in the ample amount of defensive work that he puts in within Giampaolo’s system. The fact that he’s also contributed 5 non-penalty goals despite playing a deep position is kind of an added bonus as well.

As far as which team(s) should go after him, I can’t help but think that Liverpool would be an intriguing fit, even with the potential concerns over his conservative play during fast-break opportunities. Liverpool at their best play this kind of transitional football that eats teams up and swallow them whole, which was on full display against Porto in the first leg of their Round of 16 Champions League tie. It has helped turned the likes of Sadio Mané, Roberto Firmino, and Mohamed Salah, very talented players in their own right with legitimate career resumes pre-Liverpool, into absolute world beaters. It’s some of the best transition football we have seen over the past 10–15 years in Europe.

But the trade-off is that there’ll be games where the team can’t control the game using some form of safe possession to take the sting out of their opponent. Obviously the pluses vastly outweigh the minuses, and it could be argued that the 2017–18 Liverpool incarnation is the best single season outfit that the club has had in a long while, and they’re just unfortunate to play in a league where Manchester City are doing things that modern English football hasn’t seen. It just would be interesting to have someone like Torreira, who could allow them to have a plan B of sorts and help slow down the tempo when in a +1 or +2 game state. It wouldn’t drastically turn them into something that they’re not, but perhaps remove just that bit of fragility to their game while in leading positions. It would also be interesting seeing Torreira transition from a pressing system in Sampdoria that emphasizes compactness and having very close connections with teammates, versus Liverpool’s counter pressing style that can be more chaotic and volatile.

One of the biggest storylines within the Premier League has been about Manchester United trying to get the best out of Paul Pogba, so they would also be an interesting option considering the current roster construction they have. It’s an imbalanced squad full of sparkling attackers and they’re about 2-3 midfielders short of a full rotation. Ander Herrera has been in the doghouse during parts of the season, Michael Carrick’s retiring at seasons end, and with Jose Mourinho’s instance of having his players solve defenses through improvisation and superior individual talent, having another deep midfielder with credible passing range could be what the doctor ordered.

There have also been links to Napoli, with the likes of Jorginho moving to a Premier League club over the summer as a way of funding the move. It would make sense to sell Jorginho in comparison to Diawara seeing as both Diawara and Torreira are basically on the same age timeline, and Torreira should fit in pretty seamlessly with how Napoli themselves stress the collective in attack and defense. Perhaps Torreira’s next move is simply moving up the food chain and playing for one of the elite Italian clubs.

It’s clear that Lucas Torreira is destined for bigger and better things, more so a question of when he’ll leave Sampdoria than if. The €1.5M paid by Sampdoria to Pescara in the summer of 2015 has proven to be one of the better bargains you’ll find in Europe, as the next transfer fee involving Torreira will be much larger. Under-23 defensive midfielders that have shown the capability to ably work in a pressing environment + display consistent long passing ability don’t exactly grow on trees, and whichever European club acquires his services will know that they got a supremely talented 22 year old who’s not even embarked on his prime years just yet.