Arsenal’s deal for Thomas Partey was a significant morale boost.
From waking up on Monday morning to read reports that central midfield additions were highly unlikely, to then suddenly seeing the story blow up in the media about the release clause being met and his flight being tracked all the way to Arsenal, it was an emotional ride.
Thomas Partey is now a Premier League footballer.
The only ‘downside’ to this deal is that we won’t get to see him wear his brand new No. 18 shirt until the 17th of October when we travel to Manchester City.
Mikel Arteta has got his man – albeit other top targets were in his scope – and we’re all waiting anxiously to see how he gets on in red and white. Without jumping the gun too much, I’d argue the answer to that question is ‘very well indeed’.
What does he offer our midfield? What does he offer the team in general? Here we’ll take a look at his best traits and what he can bring to Arteta’s side.
Partey is something of a jack of all trades, master of all. Well known across Europe, his skillset is so vast that he’s been utilised in an array of positions since moving to Spain, from winger to attacking midfielder to defensive enforcer. As we’ll remember, he even featured at right-back against Arsenal when we played Atletico Madrid in the Europa League a few years back.
What is of no doubt, however, is his defensive capabilities. Last season, Arsenal gave away the joint-sixth most fouls in the Premier League, with a frightening number of those the result of poorly-timed tackles.
From a standing position, Partey’s fleet-footed nature is essential to winning the ball back. In last season’s La Liga, his 76 tackles were 26 more than any other Arsenal midfielder during the same period, yet he averaged just 1.7 fouls per 90 minutes. Considering the less physical nature of La Liga, referees are quicker to penalise fouls, which makes those figures more impressive.
Aggression in his tackling is finely balanced with finesse, whether this comes from a standing position or on the slide. He excels in both methods. What’s more, not conceding a foul isn’t just of detriment to the opposition, but of benefit to his side, too, who can spring into counter attacks from deep-lying positions.
Matched only for pace by perhaps Joe Willock of the central midfield options, tracking runners from deep or recovering to make tackles against sides who like to zip the ball around the final third he also perfectly adept at doing.
He tracks opposing players meticulously, with his imposing frame more than just a fear-inducing meat-shield. 241 duels won since the start of last term make him the ideal build for Premier League football, those stats surpassing any of the current Arsenal midfield crop. His presence also forces players to shift the ball wide in search of avenues to exploit, where he can then pick up spaces in the box to bat away eventual crosses.
Partey is not an attacking midfielder. He has occupied this role in the past, but it isn’t where his best attributes come to the fore. However, no player in his position at Arsenal completed more dribbles last season than the 27-year-old. His total of 64 dwarfs the nearest competitor, Dani Ceballos, by a full 30.
Here is where Arsenal fans will draw the biggest comparisons to Patrick Vieira. Partey has tremendous grace with the ball at his feet, an unusual ability for someone of his frame. When Vieira moved to north London, he took more than just his own teammates by surprise with his accomplished technical ability despite being of a similar stature.
Driving through the thirds with possession is a facet of this Arsenal team that is sorely lacking. Ceballos can do so, but he is tasked with dropping so deep to collect possession that he stands little chance when faced with ten men in front of him. Partey is someone who can break through opposition press, whether this be at the high or medium stage.
Clever footwork and direct running with the ball allows us to see him at his belligerent best. When he’s carrying possession with pace and intent it can be hard to distinguish what his best role is, considering he can glide with the ball at such a high standard.
With Arsenal possessing great pace in forward areas, Partey’s bombardments thorugh the thirds with the ball are the perfect springboard from which attacks can stem. Distribution can’t be ignored either. His passing range equally adept at both short and long range, low or high. These deep progressions are exactly the type of creative tool Arteta has longed for. Xhaka can ping passes left and right, but the added mobility of Partey opens up the potentially for greater damage with those distributions.
Arsenal are in need of someone who can build attacks from deep, but with pace. Ceballos likes to do this, but he doesn’t have the physical attributes to power through central areas. Presenting the Spaniard with a more offensive role would greatly benefit Ceballos. He’s at his best in the final third where he can pick up the half-spaces, as I don’t necessarily think he’s as suited to the deep-lying role bestowed upon him. Partey can unlock this.
Furthermore, the Ghanaian chips in with the occasional goal. When his side are deep in opposition territory, he has a hammer of a right foot that has seen him score thunderous drives and precision daisy-cutters in the past. Since August 2019, his three La Liga goals were the same as Xhaka, Ceballos, Willock and Elneny combined in the league.
Without the Ball
Well versed in the Diego Simeone dark arts, as far as the manager is concerned, your ability off the ball is potentially even more important than your capabilities off it. The Argentine’s mantra is one of absolute defensive resilience, with their 4-4-2 setup in a mid-to-low-block essentially an invitation for the opposition to try and break them down. They rarely can.
Staying compact at all times, Los Rojiblancos shift from side to side to accommodate the opponents’ movements, but using their tactical acumen to ensure they don’t get dragged out of position. Partey has – particularly over the past three years – triumphed in this approach. It’s utterly paramount that without the ball you have total focus of your job role.
Being proactive as opposed to reactive, Partey’s understanding of danger in defensive situations is exemplary, demonstrated by his 44 interceptions made since the beginning of last season. A very intelligent midfielder, his outstanding defensive positioning is of credit to him, and Simeone.
Able to snuff out danger, opposing teams find it far tougher to play through his side as he constantly occupies potential passing lanes. This telepathic like knowledge of future passages of play transfers over into ball recovery. Preempting the next phase ensures he is often always first to second balls, a facet of English football that is drilled into us even as wee Sunday League players.
Only ten players in last season’s La Liga recovered possession more than Partey’s 384 times. Again, it’s about being proactive as opposed to reactive. In this sense, he’s a manager’s dream. Tactical flexibility but absolute dedication to whatever game plan is applied will have Arteta gleaming at the thought.
As a far more adventurous side than Atletico, these turnovers in possession can take place further up the field, offering greater scope to forge meaningful attacking phases. If Arsenal are camped in the opposition’s half Partey’s spacial awareness and keen eye for potential danger will make us far less susceptible to counter attacks when possession is turned over.
Is there anything bad about him? Honestly, it’s very hard to see any clear fault. Even in terms of adjusting to a new league, his all-action, box-to-box style of play is tailor made for the division, so too his physical attributes and propensity for progression.
Manchester City at the Etihad will be a baptism of fire, but with him in the side we stand a better chance than ever to end that torrid run of results away at the ‘top six’.