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Thomas Partey

Atlético Madrid to Arsenal, £45m

There are those who have consistently observed Arsenal who maintain that, not since the conclusion of the 2007/08 season, when they threatened to beat Manchester United to the Premier League title and when Mathieu Flamini and Gilberto Silva then left, have they had a truly convincing defensive midfielder. Alex Song followed but, for all of the quality of his passing, lacked consistency. Francis Coquelin also often impressed, but looked more vulnerable if Santi Cazorla wasn’t alongside him. It was hoped Granit Xhaka, at £35m, would prove the solution, but like Mikel Arteta who came before him, he too is at his best playing, instead of winning, the ball.

Most recently Lucas Torreira, though consistent and tenacious, was considered too small by Unai Emery, whose successor – none other than Arteta – has sanctioned his departure on loan to Atlético Madrid, and from Atlético the £45m arrival of Ghana’s Thomas Partey, who aged 27 will be expected to finally provide what Flamini and Silva so often did. “He allows us to play different formations and he can fit in within those formations in different positions, which is a really good thing to have in a squad where, in midfield, we were a little bit short,” Arteta said. “I have a few things in mind that I want to start to train with the team and (Partey’s signing) is going to give us a little bit more adaptability and more balance in defending and attacking transitions and the way we have to set up certain structures to attack better in certain moments of the game.”

Tactical analysis
Partey is an effective defensive midfielder who is as capable of supporting the full-backs as he is the central defenders behind him. If possession is wide he contributes by doubling up on the in-possession player, working to block passes infield, and to either directly dispossess their opponent or support his teammate’s attempts to do so. That work-rate is complemented by his convincing ability to cover ground, and the conviction with which he makes tackles – or presses if in a central position – making him influential across the pitch.

When defending from deep territory Partey prioritises covering the spaces that exist between full-back and central defender, particularly when opponents have progressed into the inside channel. Similarly, if a full-back has been drawn wide or beaten by his direct opponent, Partey’s awareness ensures he works to cover the relevant spaces (below) and potentially intervene in the next phase.

If he is not particularly explosive, his tenacity and desire when tracking runners or applying pressure to the ball carrier often frustrates opponents, particularly those who struggle against his upper-body strength and are instead forced to protect the ball instead of progress it, or who are left off-balance when attempting to shoot or pass. Those qualities, and that mentality, give him significant potential during both moments of transition and lengthy periods of defending, even if beaten for speed.

It is when, from the edge of the penalty area, he is working to quickly apply a press and block that Partey can become less effective. Opponents can swiftly move the ball beyond his reach and work to play a cut-back or cross that he is unable to negate; he also isn’t consistently alert to potential second balls inside the area, and can therefore be exposed by an attacker with predatory qualities.

When his team is in possession Partey favours remaining close to the central defenders behind him, and therefore available to receive short passes from them. His ability to receive and then accurately switch play towards either full-back – if possible he resists playing with his left foot – helps to advance beyond central pressure. He also reserves his lengthier passes for those being played into the wider areas of the pitch, and proves more successful when attempting straight, instead of bent, deliveries.

He is instead more effective when carrying the ball, when his strength makes him difficult to dispossess, and when he drives forward (below) after tempting opponents to challenge him and then working beyond them having feigned an attempted pass or switch of play. That preference to continue progressing the ball forwards, even when short of options, often through the lines and towards more advanced teammates, is his greatest strength when he is contributing to building play if, as with his passing, he can lead with his right foot. Once that immediate opponent has been beaten, he finds a teammate as quickly as possible instead of seeking to beat another. It is only if he is pressed on to his left foot that he will turn back and instead protect the ball.

Role at Atlético Madrid
In what was consistently Atlético’s 4-4-2, Partey became an increasingly consistent and effective figure under Diego Simeone. Across 2019/20 he contributed the joint second highest number of ball recoveries and the highest per 90 minutes in the opposition’s half, and he was also again effective at pressing and duelling.

His ability to carry the ball also placed him among their most effective players. Outside of their attackers, of those who attempted two dribbles per 90 minutes, his success rate was the club’s highest. That he is so capable of retaining possession, and driving forwards, was crucial to their attempts to attack from a 4-4-2 block that spent considerable periods in their defensive third, and when doing so he often bought time for their full-backs to advance before switching play towards them.

Via those full-backs attacking, Atlético’s wide midfielders were encouraged to move infield and to support their attacks; Partey became crucial to their defensive strength in covering the spaces behind those wide players and forming a box with the other central midfielder and two central defenders to defend against potential counters. The same applied even if one of their forwards – perhaps the talented João Félix – adopted a deeper position and their shape instead temporarily became a 4-2-3-1, and if he was required to support those attacks from further back in the event of cut-backs,

Through wide midfielders Ángel Correa, Vitolo, Thomas Lemar or Marcos Llorente offering secondary penetrative runs into the penalty area, Partey was left with minimal immediate support at the point of a defensive transition. That their full-backs were also consistently encouraged to attack made his ability to protect the spaces behind them and either side of central defence particularly essential.

Thomas Partey

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