Patrick Vieira is perhaps one of the most over-referenced players in football. It seems like every time a talented, French defensive midfielder emerges onto the scene, they are touted as his successor.
Yet the shadow of his days at Arsenal has certainly loomed over the club during the past decade, especially now. Not only have the Gunners failed to embody the mentality Vieira symbolized, but it has also sorely missed a player of his physical and technical attributes on the pitch. As Mikel Arteta seeks to rebuild the Gunners playing squad and culture, it’s no surprise that he is reportedly targeting a physically robust, energetic midfielder by the name of Thomas Partey.
Stylistically, there are clear differences to Arteta’s tactical approach and that of Atleti boss Diego Simeone. The charismatic Argentinian manager has developed his side on the basis of defensive solidity and ruthless counter-attacking. He sets his team up as a 4-4-2, where the primary aim is to maintain a narrow, compact two banks of four that can shift laterally depending on the line of the opposition’s attack.
If the ball is moved wide, Atletico unleashes a manic press that seeks to win the ball quickly before transitioning it at pace to the forwards. It’s a system that demands precocious discipline, work-rate, tactical intelligence, and concentration from every player. Over the past several seasons, Partey has come to emblematize these characteristics and develop into one of the best all-round midfielders in Europe.
Defensively, the Ghanaian is an elite ball-winner, averaging 1.3 interceptions, 2.0 successful tackles, and 6.6 defensive duels won per 90. Utilizing his 6’1” frame and his excellent positional sense, Partey is able to read opposition attacks and take up areas in front of the back four that enable him to win back the ball easily. He has both the tactical and physical traits to consistently be Atletico’s prime ball-winning presence in the middle.
He also excels at moving laterally to cover for the fullbacks or wide-midfielders. Far more than just a stagnant presence in front of the back four, he is capable of covering large swaths of space in front of the defence to provide comprehensive protection for them and security for the attack.
However, Partey is not a pure defensive midfielder. Both he and his midfield partner Saul Niguez are uniquely complete in their skillset and contribute greatly to Atletico’s defensive and offensive performance.
Atletico’s Thomas Partey vs Liverpool:
11/16 duels won
5 tackles won
2 shots blocked
— Global Watch Football (@globalwatch_7) March 11, 2020
During build-up, Partey takes up intelligent positions to provide support to the fullbacks and centre-backs. He has an intuitive awareness of where to be to pose as a passing option, making him vital to Atletico’s ability to retain possession. His 83% pass accuracy speaks volumes about his role in build-up play.
While his passing range and vision are not necessarily remarkable, Partey is still a progressive passer who excels at transitioning the ball from defence to attack. 36% of all his passes go forward, demonstrating his positive mindset when he has the ball. Utilizing short, vertical passes, he can penetrate opposition defensive lines without much risk, as these passes are relatively simple to execute.
However, his greatest offensive strength is undoubtedly his dribbling. Whether it be evading opposition pressure, manoeuvring through congested areas of the pitch, or carrying the ball through space to push the team higher up the pitch, Partey is a remarkably effective and complete dribbler for a midfielder, completing 1.7 successful dribbles per 90. His technical quality combined with his pace and strength make it difficult for opposition markers to take the ball off him, and Partey’s dribbling has become instrumental to Atletico’s counter-attacking capacity.
Best dribble success rate in Europe’s top five leagues this season (50+ dribbles attempted):
— WhoScored.com (@WhoScored) July 5, 2020
Should the 27-year-old make the switch to North London, there may be a period of transition. Not only would he be moving to a foreign country and league, but he would also be joining a team with a completely different tactical approach. Partey would need to get used to playing in a team that dominates the ball more and presses more actively. However, he could bring Arsenal a multitude of qualities that they desperately need.
The 27-year-old would give Arsenal an element of physicality that they lack in most areas of the pitch. His ability to cover large amounts of space could compensate for Arsenal’s tendency to loiter when transitioning from defence to attack. He could also increase their effectiveness during build-up with his ability to rotate and progress possession or carry the ball himself.
Partey would also give Mikel Arteta greater tactical flexibility. In Arsenal’s 4-2-3-1 and 3-4-3, he could be used alongside any number of midfielders in the double pivot. He could play alongside Lucas Torreira, Granit Xhaka or Matteo Guendouzi, in which case he would be given greater license to drive into the final third with his dribbling prowess.
If we were to play alongside Dani Ceballos, he could shoulder greater defensive responsibility, which could also be useful if Arteta seeks to use Mesut Ozil in the number ten role. The Ghana international’s supreme all-round ability could give Arteta a variety of options to tweak his selection based on the opposition, options that will no doubt make the Gunners a more unpredictable outfit.
Beyond this, he would be the first major indication of a real cultural shift at Arsenal. While purchasing a player from such a tactically different side could be risky, Arteta clearly wants to acquire players with the type of mentality that Simeone has fostered in the Spanish capital. Effort, work ethic, and resilience will be pre-requisites with Partey, something that cannot necessarily be said of the rest of the Arsenal squad. Arteta has spoken at length about the cultural revolution he intends to incite at Arsenal, and Partey would be a major step in doing so.
Should Arsenal be able to afford him, Thomas Partey would be an astute signing for the Gunners. Whether he could help them return to the highest echelons of English football remains to be seen.