AC Milan got their season back on track with an impressive 1-0 win away to Sampdoria last Friday night, though they would have failed to keep a clean sheet were it not for the safe hands of their 17-year-old goalkeeper, Gianluigi Donnarumma.
The young shot-stopper is a footballing prodigy, a player whose maturity and composure belies his tender years. In this respect, he is one among many in Serie A. Indeed, his first major save during Milan’s latest victory kept out a shot by fellow prospect Lucas Torreira.
Sampdoria’s 20-year-old midfielder tested Donnarumma’s increasingly renowned reflexes with a long-range thunderbolt in the first half of that match before going on to put in an assured performance, contributing particularly well defensively with three tackles and two interceptions, per WhoScored.com.
Having never played at this level before, Torreira has now started every single one of the Blucerchiati’s four Serie A games so far this season and has impressed consistently. Consequently, he is one of the rising young talents in the league.
And Milan would be wise to keep tabs on his progress.
Born in Fray Bentos, Uruguay, Torreira joined the youth system of Montevideo Wanderers at the age of 17. However, before long he moved to Europe, following in the footsteps of esteemed compatriots such as Edinson Cavani, Paolo Montero and Alvaro Recoba in making Italian football his first port of call.
He signed for Pescara, who were then plying their trade in Serie B, in January 2014, and after impressing for the Delfini’s primavera squad, he made his league debut for the first team in May 2015 against Varese.
Despite only briefly appearing in the 2014-15 season, Torreira turned heads. Sampdoria, eager to stay one step ahead of the competition, secured his permanent signature in the summer of 2015 for a fee of £1.7 million, per Transfermarkt.
However, with the player in need of regular exposure to competitive football, he was immediately sent back to Pescara on loan. Under Massimo Oddo’s auspices, he broke through with some energetic displays to help his temporary employers earn promotion via the play-offs.
On July 4, Torreira’s chances of earning an opportunity with his parent club significantly increased when Sampdoria hired Marco Giampaolo as their new head coach, replacing the Milan-bound Vincenzo Montella.
The 49-year-old Swiss worked wonders with Empoli last term, bolstering his reputation not only for an ability to implement entertaining and attack-minded football but for his willingness to blood previously untested young players.
Under Giampaolo’s stewardship, 22-year-old Argentine playmaker Leandro Paredes flourished at the base of midfield, while Piotr Zielinski (also 22) thrived on the right of a diamond midfield. The former is now competing for a starting place at Roma, while the latter is doing the same with Napoli.
Torreira appears the latest player to benefit from the nurturing instincts and tactical acumen of Giampaolo.
Within the coach’s favoured 4-1-2-1-2 shape, the Uruguayan operates from the base of midfield. While in other teams this role would come with primarily defensive duties, for Sampdoria the position requires nous in possession.
Giampaolo prefers a compact formation which facilitates the formation of diamond and triangle shapes, each of which offer multiple passing lanes to the ball-player and facilitate the sort of fast combinations and forward moves that the coach desires.
Torreira is crucial to this element of Sampdoria’s play, as he must position himself to support the building of possession from the back. To his central-defensive team-mates, Matias Silvestre and Vasco Regini, he is one of the first passing options. And when his team have the ball in the middle third, he must offer his midfield colleagues a viable outlet.
In defensive transitions, Giampaolo has also sought to bring about more of a counter-pressing approach whereby his team seek to pressure the opposition immediately after turning possession over to them. Here, Torreira must be alert to place himself correctly in order to support the counter-press, as failure to do so would leave Sampdoria open and vulnerable to counter-attacks.
Despite his youth, the defensive midfielder already appears to possess crucial traits necessary to fulfil the responsibilities associated with his position. As both defensive shield and a first point of reference for building attacks, he has important parts to play in both established phases of the game and performs them well.
This video showcases some of Torreira’s most valuable strengths:
Despite his diminutive 5’6” stature, he is a highly astute ball-winner. His lack of an imposing physique is more than made up for by an unerring awareness of where to position himself and when best to apply pressure to his direct opponent.
This is shown at the three-second mark, where Torreira takes advantage both of the fact that—with two of his Pescara team-mates in close proximity—his opponent is in a difficult situation and has his back to goal. Harrying him from behind, Torreira unsurprisingly comes away with the ball.
His pace across the ground allows him to quickly provide coverage, something shown in the above video both on one minute and at 1:35. In each of these instances, he showcases speed of movement to go along with his speed of thought.
And Torreira is more than a rugged tackler with good anticipation; he also offers important qualities in possession. As well as his knowledge of when to move forward to support the attacks, he offers penetrative passing and is able to beat his marker when necessary, driving beyond lines of pressure.
One of Montella’s greatest headaches since taking the reins at Milan has been finding a midfielder who can dictate his team’s possession game when building from the back.
Riccardo Montolivo’s oft-askew positioning, slow reactions and occasionally indecisive passing make him generally ineffective for the role, while potential alternates Jose Sosa and Andrea Bertolacci are relatively unproven and—as primarily attack-minded midfielders—lack the necessary defensive awareness to dispossess and intercept.
Torreira combines his positional intelligence with a relentlessly combative approach and good timing in the tackle to effectively disrupt opposition attacks. Indeed, per WhoScored, no Sampdoria player has completed more than his seasonal average of 2.5 interceptions per game, while only one makes more tackles than his four.
It’s also worth noting something that was on show throughout his performance in his side’s recent defeat to Milan: his canniness. He was far and away the most fouled player on the pitch with six committed against him, most of which involved his ability to con his marker and draw the foul.
Some may describe this as cynical, others as clever. But irrespective of opinion, Torreira’s ability to win free-kicks and relieve pressure is valuable.
He is also an efficient and progressive distributor offensively, something confirmed by his 59.3 passes per game and 87.8 per cent completion rate, both of which are higher than the respective numbers of Montolivo, according to WhoScored.
Torreira has the appearance of a tenacious albeit functional destroyer in the same vein as Inter Milan’s Gary Medel, but as the highlights and statistics suggest, he is so much more than that. And at 20 years of age, he has plenty of time to develop further.
While Montella is in need of a ball-player to dictate affairs from the base of his three-man midfield, there is no need to search purely for specialists. After all, it has been a long time since the club had a midfielder capable of operating equally well in both the defensive and attacking phases.
With this in mind, Torreira could be the ideal pivot for Milan in future.