Why Thomas Partey is the Premier League’s most important player
When Julian Alvarez let fly, he had room to do so. His shot arrowed on to the base of the post. A few seconds later, Nathan Ake scored. Half an hour after that, the Premier League leaders were out of the FA Cup. It may not have been Arsenal’s greatest loss at the Etihad Stadium on Friday.
Mikel Arteta had tried to take the risk-free approach. He had rested the majority of his regulars against Manchester City, his bench featuring six who would have begun a league game. But Thomas Partey started and suffered; his ribs were hurt in a collision with Ilkay Gundogan, his match ended at half-time and, when Alvarez then proved the catalyst for the winner, it was tempting to wonder if Partey would have closed him down and snuffed out the danger. Sometimes the best defensive midfielders attract attention more when they aren’t there than when they are.
So mentions of, and laments for, Partey could abound in the next few weeks. He will have an MRI scan. Arsenal could be forgiven for fearing the worst. Injuries have cost them before. They might have won the title in 2008, after all, but for losing Eduardo at a similar stage of the season. In particular, Partey’s injuries have cost them before. They very probably would have qualified for the Champions League last season had Partey’s campaign lasted from August to May, not September to April. He missed their first three league games, and they lost all; he missed their last nine, and they lost four. No Partey, no party?
They may think so. Partey isn’t quite their modern-day Invincible, but he isn’t far off. Arsenal have only lost four games this season. Partey sat out two, came off with the scores level on Friday and came on when PSV Eindhoven were already ahead. Still more than invincible, he has felt Arsenal’s indispensable.
That a £60m bid for Moises Caicedo preceded his injury was an expensive indication that Arteta recognised the need for an alternative. That it was rebuffed showed Brighton’s determination to keep the Ecuadorian. If the last few days of the transfer window are shaping up as a test of their resolve and of Arsenal’s largesse, especially if Albion end up demanding the kind of fee the Gunners ultimately did not pay, and Chelsea did, for Mykhailo Mudryk, it points to a dynamic in the transfer market.
Defensive midfielders may now be commanding superstar-style prices. If it is another trend that stems from Chelsea’s overspending, given their pursuit of Enzo Fernandez, it may be reflected in some of the seasons of the elite. Rodri is integral for City, Manchester United’s improvement can be traced to the way Casemiro is such an upgrade on Scott McTominay and Fred and Partey has been terrific for Arsenal. The contrast is supplied by the underachievers Chelsea, suffering in the absence of N’Golo Kante, and Liverpool, sadly lacking the Fabinho of old.
Arsenal offer a comparison to United: the gap between the first-choice holding player and his understudy is too big. They may have benefited when Casemiro was suspended for their meeting in London last weekend, but Partey sat out their previous trip to Manchester. Albert Sambi Lokonga was susceptible as they were caught on the counter-attack in defeat at Old Trafford. Five months later and, with Mohamed Elneny injured, Lokonga had come for Partey when Alvarez exploited the space in front of Arsenal’s back four.
That drop-off between first and second choice is one reason to anoint Partey the most important player in the Premier League. Another lies in a shift in tactics: push the rest of the midfield up to press high and the insurance policy becomes still more pivotal. As Casemiro and Rodri can testify, one player is often charged with doing the job of two. That Caicedo has similar power, and powers of anticipation and assurance in possession, suggests he is another of their rare breed.
If Arsenal’s season has seemed a triumph of the team, more than the squad, with seven starters in every Premier League game and an eighth player, Martin Odegaard, who has missed a lone match, Friday offered evidence of alternatives in many a position: in Leandro Trossard’s promising first start on the left wing, in Kieran Tierney and Takehiro Tomiyasu’s unsurprising reliability as full-backs, in Matt Turner’s decent display in goal. Rob Holding may have taken his surname too literally in his methods of dealing with Erling Haaland but January has brought Arsenal centre-back cover, in Jakub Kiwior. The last month has proved Eddie Nketiah can be a potent deputy to Gabriel Jesus.
Maybe Arteta could shift Granit Xhaka or Oleksandr Zinchenko into Partey’s position, thus affecting another role, but the area where Arsenal seemed shortest of a pedigree replacement was at the base of the midfield. And an unwanted vision of life without Partey flags up questions of who or how they can cover and if his absence prompts a colossal bid.