Arsenal needs Partey to Reprise the “Ramsey Role”
Arsenal’s weekend victory over Leicester City was notable in two distinct ways.
For starters, it was only the second time in the Premier League this season that the Gunners had come from behind to win. More unexpectedly, Mikel Arteta’s side managed to turn the game around despite making significant changes to their starting line-up.
Willian, Nicolas Pepe, and Mohamed Elneny (aside from the mistake of the opening goal) put on impressive showings, and it strengthens convictions all around. It also buttresses the idea of a squad hierarchy in terms of selections: Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, Bukayo Saka, Martin Ødegaard, and Thomas Partey are undisputed first-choice players, and so were duly rested following their exertions in the Europa League three days prior.
What this suggests is that Arteta is going all-in on the trio of attacking midfielders behind a striker as his default attacking set-up going forward. It is a configuration that has led to Arsenal enjoying their best run of form in the season so far, and most crucially, it has gotten club captain Aubameyang back among the goals.
Issues in the Middle
However, in the Europa League Round of 16 second-leg tie against Benfica, some of the system’s shortcomings were laid bare.
The Portuguese side left space behind their defensive line for much of the game, a dream scenario that Arsenal was unable to consistently exploit. Over the two legs, the Gunners created a total of four big chances – not so encouraging.
It highlighted the trouble with playing an attacking midfield band made up of players who all come toward the ball. Arsenal spent long periods of the game keeping possession in front of Benfica, searching for the perfect through ball to find a sole central attacking run. It is a challenge they will grapple with against opponents of this persuasion. For the system to function optimally, there needs to be another run for opposing defenders to worry about, at the very least. Without it, the onus on combining quickly to open up opponents’ defenses becomes even greater.
If that run isn’t to come from the trio of Saka, Ødegaard, or Emile Smith Rowe, then it must come from deep midfield. This brings us around to Partey.
But Why Partey?
When Arsenal triggered his release clause last summer, it was too much fanfare. The Gunners were signing a Champions League-level midfielder. Although the fee seemed exorbitant for a player occupying a nominal defensive brief at Atletico Madrid, Partey had shown that he was capable of so much more.
Six months in, and even accounting for the fact he has missed a significant number of matches due to injury, it remains difficult to properly evaluate his impact at the Emirates so far. When fit, he has displayed calm and fluidity both in and out of possession, but there has been precious little dynamism so far.
Arsenal has, to their credit, handled his return from the most recent setback with a great deal of care. They will now look to him to properly kick on, and it is in embracing a more vertical brief that he will provide solutions within Arteta’s system, especially against massed ranks.
Arsenal has been here before: under Arsène Wenger, they would often field Thomas Rosicky, Santi Cazorla, and Mesut Özil – all ball-oriented technicians – behind a striker. The thrust would then come from Aaron Ramsey, picking his moments to burst forward and unbalance opposing defenses.
With Granit Xhaka functioning as the fulcrum of the side (and he has done, even in the presence of his high-priced Ghanaian counterpart), Partey could fulfill the same role if granted the opportunity to do so. Already, Hector Bellerin tends to change in possession, adopting a narrower position that would, in theory, allow the Ghanaian to step forward onto the last line. These sorties will, of course, have to be well-timed lest they leave Arsenal exposed to counters. However, Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City has shown, with their use of Ilkay Gundogan, that it is possible to format an attack in such a fashion.
Partey has the skills set to perform
It is a responsibility that is not unfamiliar to Partey. At the international level, he is often fielded further forward, and he is actually a very good finisher when presented with opportunities.
It just seems that, at the moment, there is some inner restriction to his play; a sense that he has not quite gotten out of second gear. Having him sit deep alongside Xhaka at all times robs Arsenal of good threat in the opposing box and may deny the club the full benefit of a player they shelled out their entire transfer budget to recruit. Only by setting him free will we see the final form of Arteta’s system.