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Who partners Thomas Partey in Arsenal’s midfield?

By Rob Worthington (Senior Writer)

Thomas Partey’s deadline day arrival means Mikel Arteta immediately has a new number one central midfielder. The Ghana international excelled at the base of Diego Simeone’s midfield since the departure of veteran midfielder Gabi in 2018 and has progressed to become a truly world-class talent.

According to The Athletic, Mikel Arteta views his no. 18 as a long-term solution in a role the Argentine’s call the “cinco”. In England, the “cinco” is better known as the ‘no. 6’ role. The likes of Fabinho and Jordan Henderon often play in this position for Liverpool while Fernandinho was instrumental in this position in the season of Manchester City’s 18/19 title win.

Partey may not immediately occupy this role for Arsenal but it suggests going forward Arteta sees the Ghanaian as a man who will play in between two wider central midfielders.

Pep Guardiola and Jurgen Klopp respectively have shown these wider middlemen can be deployed in very different manners. On the one hand, Guardiola uses them as mezzalas. Offensively oriented midfielders. On the other, Klopp usually has two box-to-box type players in these positions. More conservative midfielders.

There is certainly a case to suggest that Arteta’s options mean his team would be better suited to a more Klopp-esque system. In Tierney and Bellerin, we have two full backs who are more than capable of bombing forward while in the midfield we lack creativity. So, perhaps in a Liverpool-esque manner our full backs could provide our creative threat while our midfielders could concentrate on doing the hard yards. At least for the time being.

However, whether this is what Arteta wants to do is another question in itself. It’s obvious that he’d like to shift to a 4-3-3, but the evidence thus far shows no sign of a preference for either a Guardiola or a Klopp-type system.

In fact, our formation against Sheffield United in the second half perhaps indicated Arteta wants to take ideas from both systems. At left central midfield, we had Bukayo and Willian switching between left-wing and mezzala. On the right, we had Dani Ceballos playing a more box to box type role.

Could that be the answer for the time being? Saka on the left, Partey at the base and Ceballos on the right? An enticing prospect. However, there are of course question marks over Saka’s ability to play that role consistently.

An argument in favour of such a trio is the fact it likely aligns with the vision Arteta had for long-term target Houssem Aouar. Instead, Saka is operating in the role Aouar would’ve occupied. Granit Xhaka straightforwardly possesses a completely different profile to Aouar and Saka so would likely not be able to play this role under Arteta.

Therefore, against lower calibre opposition, I wouldn’t be surprised to see Arteta experiment with Saka-Partey-Ceballos. Saka could definitely have a future in central midfield and his ability to learn new positions quickly suggests he’d be able to adapt to such a role if Mikel Arteta ordered him to do so.

Against better opposition, it might be the case that we’re not quite ready for the 4-3-3 yet. Perhaps we’re not ready at all. Partey has never really played as a sole holding midfielder and the fact we missed out on Aouar really inhibits are potential to shift.

Continuing with the 3-4-3 for the time being could be a very real possibility. Partey is well tuned to playing in a double pivot and could prove to be the ideal partner for Granit Xhaka. His athleticism could go a long way towards hiding Xhaka’s lack of mobility. Partey on the right, Xhaka on the left. It has a nice ring to it.

Alternatively, Partey could line up alongside Dani Ceballos in a double pivot. Partey’s defensive nous would likely free up the Spaniard and allow him to pose a greater offensive threat. Nonetheless, both players are rather one-footed in regard to their reluctance to use their left-foots so this midfield could lack a bit of balance in that sense.

Overall, it’s clear that a lot of experimentation will have to occur over the course of the next few months. Meanwhile, Mikel Arteta will presumably continue to act pragmatically and tinker his midfield based on the opposition.

Nevertheless, one thing is obvious, Thomas Partey is likely to be Arsenal’s only guaranteed starter in the engine room. The rest of Mikel Arteta’s midfield options have a battle on their hands.

It’s down to the likes of Dani Ceballos, Granit Xhaka, Mo Elneny, Bukayo Saka, Joe Willock and Emile Smith-Rowe to show that they deserve to start next to our newest recruit.

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