It’s been a strange inaugural season for Thomas Partey at Arsenal. Signed from Atletico Madrid on transfer deadline day in October, the Ghanaian midfielder responded to Arsenal’s SOM (Save Our Midfield) in a deal worth around £45m. Where Arsenal are concerned, that isn’t pocket change- especially as the gap between the present and the Gunners’ most recent Champions League qualification yawns ever wider.
Atleti were not happy about the way that Arsenal triggered Partey’s release clause in the final moments of the transfer window but given that they won La Liga this season, it didn’t appear to unduly perturb them on the pitch. After five years at Atleti, the word was that Partey was interested in a new challenge and the opportunity to be the main man in Arsenal’s midfield rather than a cog in Simeone’s wheel.
At 27, he is approaching his prime years and rescuing Arsenal from their post-Cazorla malaise offered Thomas the opportunity to burnish his reputation. Shortly after the signing was completed, we recorded an episode of the Arsenal Vision Podcast in which we discussed whether Arsenal ought to be spending this sort of sum on a 27-year old at such an early stage of a rebuild.
Predictably, we received some pushback because fans are excited when their team complete big money transfers and don’t really want to hear why they might not be a good idea. I expressed some doubt about the signing on the episode based purely on Partey’s age- I knew very little about him as a player because I don’t watch much La Liga nor do I watch Ghana.
My problem with the signing was that it leaves absolutely no room for anything other than a transformative player- Partey might well be that player but it’s a huge risk and I wasn’t convinced it was an especially calculated one. Arsenal opted to trigger his release clause after a summer pursuing Houssem Aouar and, in fairness, I understood the chronology of events.
Arsenal needed both a number 10 and a central midfielder (a situation Arsenal find themselves in again this summer) but could probably only afford one. It made sense to move on to Partey once the Aouar flame was totally extinguished. Ted Knutson of Statsbomb was on the receiving end of some acid-tongued rebuke for his scepticism over the deal but I thought what he said made a lot of sense.
“If you buy young guys and they don’t work out, at least you can sell them on at a small loss and roll the dice again (Lucas Torreira). But if you buy/sign an older player on big wages and they don’t work out, you are dead. You either have to eat a ton of their wages to move them on, or they stick around until the end of their contract with declining production.”
A case in point here is Matteo Guendouzi. The last 12 months of his Arsenal career have been an unmitigated disaster, despite a promising start to his time in N5. He was completely frozen out of the team by Mikel Arteta after one too many displays of insolence and has hitherto enjoyed a completely unremarkable loan spell at Hertha Berlin.
He now has one year left on his contract. Yet, if reports from France are to be believed, he will be the easiest and quickest player to shift this summer. His value has tanked compared to where it would have been in 2019- but he still has a value and Arsenal still stand to make a modest profit on their investment. They will probably take a small hit to move Lucas Torreira on.
Neither of these moves has worked out but neither has been especially damaging, either. When you sign players in their late prime years, there is no margin for error. Arsenal’s midfield has been so below par for so long that any signing in that area will immediately be expected to rescue the midfield- it probably explains why a lot of us over-evaluated Torreira and Guendouzi initially.
Partey has to work out, he has to be the fulcrum of the midfield for the remainder of his contract and he has to be a really good one. We are one year into his contract with the impression of a season, not so much wasted as one that has left us grasping for solid conclusions. In Thomas’ case there are, clearly, a lot of caveats available.
He moved to a new league and a new country on deadline day, which this season was well into October with the season well under way. Moving countries during the covid pandemic is challenging in its own right, he had fitness issues which were almost certainly mismanaged by the club initially. He also came into a very dysfunctional team.
It was quite the assignment, yet we can see that he is probably Arsenal’s best midfield player- which he really ought to be. He possesses qualities that the team has been crying out for since Santi Cazorla’s achilles went to heaven. Per FBRef, he is in the 89th percentile in the division for progressive passes, progressive carries and dribbles completed and in the 88th percentile for successful tackles.
His ability to receive the ball on the half-turn, to resist the opposition press and spray the ball into the wide channels are revolutionary for an Arsenal midfield that has for too long pushed its food around the plate. The problem is that, so far, we haven’t seen those qualities enough and given the price Arsenal paid for the player that means we need to see them all the damn time.
With a full pre-season behind him, Partey ought to be in a better position to bring his A-game more consistently. Next season he will either be able to build on his good understanding with Granit Xhaka, or else Xhaka will be sold and Arsenal will buy him a new partner. Maybe Arsenal have the opportunity to do something really unusual and deliberately scout a replacement that complements Partey’s attributes.
Ultimately, Partey was a “must work now” signing and he’s endured something of a false start. I am reminded of a documentary Louis Theroux shot some years ago on the adult entertainment industry. At some point in the episode, Louis is on set while a male performer is struggling to, as Josh Kroenke might have it, “be excited.” The cameraman yells at the forlorn male actor over and over.
“Come on man, we need to get this shot!” Louis interrupts the cameraman’s lambaste and gently enquires whether it’s particularly helpful for the actor who is clearly suffering from a touch of stage fright. “I don’t care,” the cameraman spits back, “that’s the fucking job; that’s what we hired him for.” The same is true of Thomas Partey- flashes of quality won’t be enough to justify this gamble. Arsenal needs him to be excellent and they need him to be excellent now. Next season, the spotlight will be harsh and we need to get this shot.