When Arsenal activated Thomas Partey’s release clause in October, they were paying for an instant and significant upgrade in midfield. The engine room has been an issue in recent years and it stands to reason, with Aaron Ramsey, Mesut Ozil, Santi Cazorla and Francis Coquelin all leaving since 2018. (Whatever you think of Coquelin, he was a key part of Arsenal’s midfield at one point). Lucas Torreira and Matteo Guendouzi have also left on loan.
The rebuilding of the midfield area has been blighted by the failure to secure transfer fees for all but one of the aforementioned. As a result, the club have muddled through, bringing Dani Ceballos on loan- twice- even though the player is insistent he is not interested in a permanent transfer (as is his right, of course).
Mohamed Elneny has been welcomed back into the fold after a loan spell at Besiktas and last January, Mikel Arteta had to basically beg Granit Xhaka to stay after his tiff with Arsenal supporters. Joe Willock has 39 Premier League appearances for the club in this malleable midfield environment. The midfield has lacked consistency and, let’s be honest, quality for at least the last three seasons.
Partey is, hopefully, the first brick of the midfield rebuild. It’s probably too early to conduct any victory laps (many of us made this mistake with Torreira, for example) but it seems obvious enough that Partey is a cut above his counterparts. His performances against Manchester United and Newcastle in particular demonstrate an ability to create transitions.
When he tackles, he tackles forwards and not only takes the ball off the opponent but takes it in stride. Coaches often refer to this as ‘regain and retain.’ His top three pass combinations on Monday evening were to Granit Xhaka, Pierre Emerick Aubameyang and Emile Smith-Rowe. The positivity in his passing was a real boon not least because of how quickly he releases the ball.
Emile Smith-Rowe has sped up Arsenal’s play in the final third and, hopefully, Partey can be a similar type of catalyst in the middle third. Dani Ceballos and Granit Xhaka are not bad footballers, they have flaws, clearly, but both are good at what they do. The issue is that they are too similar and like to take too many touches, which has led to slow, deliberate play.
In my view, Xhaka and Ceballos both do their best work in a similar area of the pitch and the presence of both leads to a giant chasm between midfield and attack. Smith-Rowe’s presence between the lines has bridged some of that gap but Partey is just able to move Arsenal another 10-15 yards further up the field.
His presence also creates greater verticality for Arsenal, with Partey sitting between a number 6 and a number 10, there are more lines of progressive pass available. The question now is who partners Partey? I would still like the club to sign a better defensive midfielder than Granit Xhaka but I am not sure how likely that is this summer.
Ceballos doesn’t belong to Arsenal and Mohamed Elneny will have one year left on his Arsenal deal come June. I think it’s reasonably obvious that there is no way back for either Torreira or Guendouzi. Granit Xhaka will have two years left on his current deal and, at the age of 28, it would be the perfect time to sell him on.
However, with Guendouzi, Elneny and Torreira all likely to be sold permanently this summer and Dani Ceballos to return to Spain, adding Xhaka to that swelling departures list seems unlikely. It is clear that Arteta values Xhaka, earlier this week he said, “he’s playing really, really well. He’s still a player who can evolve and it’s great for us to have him back.”
Interestingly, he also described Xhaka as “young” which is not a term often assigned to 28-year olds in football. However, I wonder if Arteta sees this position as a country for old men. Arteta didn’t start to play the position himself until he hit 30. When he says Xhaka is “a player who can evolve”, it suggests that he thinks Granit Xhaka’s Arsenal race is not yet run. In short, whether we like it or not, don’t be surprised if Xhaka gets another contract extension.
Assuming that to be the case, the question then becomes how a Partey Xhaka partnership might work for the next 18 months at least. I have seen it asked- and indeed have asked myself- whether Xhaka is capable of deferring to Partey as the eggs and flour of this particular cake mix.
Xhaka is an alpha personality (which has not always worked out well for him), can he cope with being the condiment to torture another cuisine based analogy? Partey’s presence ought to simplify Granit’s role and limit his number of responsibilities. When paired with Ceballos, the two midfielders end up alongside one another like fußball players- often way inside Arsenal’s half.
With Smith-Rowe and Partey there is a clear 8 and a clear 10, leaving Xhaka to patrol a smaller area of the pitch and an area he is more comfortable in. One would hope this would lead to less stress for the Swiss because he doesn’t really deal with stress well. It also allows him to be emphatically left leaning since Partey prefers the right side.
Ceballos and Xhaka’s partnership was awkward because both players preferred to start from the left. In fairness to Xhaka, he performed a very altruistic role early in Arteta’s reign, operating in the left-back space so that Bukayo Saka could charge up the touchline. This was not an ‘alpha’ role, it was a deferential role and one he executed without fanfare.
I do think Xhaka needs to get his mojo back in possession- against Newcastle two of his top passing combinations were Rob Holding and David Luiz. Sometimes a team does need to go backwards to go forwards but the backwards pass shouldn’t be the de facto pass. Xhaka has a good forward pass in his locker- we know this.
He doesn’t necessarily execute it as quickly or as smoothly as Partey but we know he can fizz a ball between the lines. Partey and Tierney were also among his top passing combinations against Newcastle and those are the passes he will need to make more of. Assuming my read of the situation is correct and Xhaka is part of the manager’s medium to long-term planning, I think the player is fortunate to have made it to this juncture of the Arsenal rebuild.
I think that is largely borne out of circumstance as other midfield players just haven’t panned out as we had hoped. This isn’t a gift horse Xhaka should look in the mouth either, he has been given the chance to play alongside a top class central midfielder for the first time since Aaron Ramsey’s departure. How he can best complement Thomas Partey should be central to Xhaka’s thinking.
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