Who should be Thomas Partey’s pivot partner?
With Thomas Partey now fully recovered from his injury and ready to start, a new debate is emerging in the Arsenal fanbase: who should be Thomas Partey’s double pivot partner?
Option 1: Granit Xhaka
Switzerland international and former Arsenal captain Granit Xhaka is undoubtedly the favourite option to be Thomas Partey’s midfield buddy. Xhaka has seemingly been a mainstay in this Arsenal side under several different managers, despite coming under copious amounts of criticism from the fanbase. He has continued to fight for the club and his starting place, and at times looks like the player we thought we had signed from Borrusia Mönchengladbach in the summer of 2016. However, Xhaka is nothing if not inconsistent. While he has the range in his skillset to play a long ball, make a clean tackle or interception and even dictate the tempo of the game, we have yet to see this for a sustained period in his four and a half seasons at the club.
Playing Xhaka alongside Partey, however, would allow our returning midfielder more freedom to drive with the ball, attack and get involved with play higher up the pitch. Xhaka’s willingness to sit deep would prove key to gaining balance in the middle of the park, and the combination between Partey’s all-round excellence and Xhaka’s cover and passing range could be the best midfield pairing to offer the most to Arsenal.
Option 2: Dani Ceballos
Another option of whom we could partner alongside Thomas Partey is Real Madrid loanee Dani Ceballos. The Spaniard is a player who divides fans more than most others. He’s made it perfectly clear through recent interviews that he wishes to become a Real Madrid player again and has no intentions of a further loan next year. Yet, Ceballos still seems to be one of the most passionate players on the pitch; his goal celebrations where he breaks down onto his knees always make me laugh- that one in particular where he celebrated a fourth goal against West Brom as if we had won the World Cup was hysterical.
But, on a more serious note, Dani Ceballos is another player who optimises the word ‘inconsistent’. At times, his work on the ball is delicate, progressive and even creative, but for large amounts of the time it’s sideways and unproductive. The problem that he might have alongside Partey is his positioning. Partey, at his best, would be allowed the freedom to drive forward and use his technical abilities higher up the pitch. Ceballos, alternatively, prefers to pick up the ball from deep and dictate the play, but does not tend to sit deep when off the ball. This pivot could see Partey reduced to a more defensive role which, although he can do it, is not where he is most effective.
Option 3: ‘The rest’
The remainder of Arsenal’s midfielders can, with all due respect, be put into one category. I find it unlikely that the midfield partner will be neither Xhaka nor Ceballos- as they have been played by Arteta the most up until this point.
Whilst Mohammed Elneny accompanied Partey with tremendous success in our 1-0 victory against Manchester United in early December, he doesn’t appear to me to have the qualities to start for Arsenal week in week out, regardless of his partner. His sideways passing is infuriating and, while he can evade the press better than Ceballos and Xhaka, they offer more against most sides across the course of 90 minutes.
Our squad runs rather thin in midfield options right now. The only other players in the squad who are viable options in the centre of the park are Hale End graduates Ainsley Maitland-Niles and Joe Willock. The former seems to be out of favour in Mikel Arteta’s eyes- his minutes have been very limited thus far. In fact, he has only really been used as a full-back by Arteta, bar one Europa League game earlier in the season.
As for Joe Willock, I don’t think he would suit a system where he is confined to being part of a pivot. In all of Arsenal’s systems, he seems out of place. While I do see potential in the 21-year-old, he needs to be allowed the freedom to play as the advanced midfielder in a three, a number eight of sorts. It would be best to send him out to a Premier League club on loan where he can get minutes and come back with a more defined position and role.
Overall, I don’t think the question of Partey’s pivot partner is really that simple. There isn’t one answer. With Partey as the nailed-on starter, I would rotate between Xhaka and Ceballos, and maybe even Elneny, for the remainder of the season. Xhaka should start in most games but against low-blocks I would opt for Ceballos due to his ability to help create in forward areas. When playing teams who press high (like United), Elneny should come in- as that is where his strengths lie. Until we can find a suitable long-term partner for Partey (which will need to be a signing completed in the next Summer window), I think the wisest way to play would be to rotate between our three main options, based on what type of game our opponents play.