Gunner Thoughts

Arsenal’s best midfield duo? Partey and Smith Rowe

The search for Partey’s best balancing act may be over but it’s not someone in the pivot.

Since deadline day, when Arsenal made the move to spring Thomas Partey from Atletico Madrid by paying his release clause, Arsenal fans’ imagination and dreams ran wild with the type of superstar they were adding, what Partey’s abilities unlocked and allowed the midfield to do, and potential lineups.

Was he to finally be the Vieira replacement that Arsenal were never able to find? He couldn’t be better…could he? Well, even if he came up a little short of Vieira, that would be a pretty damn impressive midfielder to add to the squad.

Quickly the thoughts moved to who would partner Partey in the midfield. He seemed a shoo in for one of the first on the team sheet every match, but who was compatible with him, who enabled him to do more? Or, was it a case of who contrasted him beautifully to offer an array of skills and expertise so that Arsenal’s double pivot had the answer to every question opposition asked of them?

Sadly, Partey’s start to life at Arsenal would be far from the fanfare-filled dream many can remember themselves imagining as children. It was revealed through media and journalists before he was whisked away by Ghana on international duty for nearly two weeks. Once that was completed, he arrived in north London to a London Colney observing strict Covid guidelines in a pandemic world.

He would play 7 minutes against Manchester City to kick off his Arsenal career before playing 90 minutes against Rapid Vienna, 90 minutes against Leicester City, 90 minutes against Manchester United, and 45 minutes against Aston Villa.

In those games, Partey would be partnered by Elneny leading to some success in a few matches, including a major win over Manchester United at Old Trafford. However, they also had 45 minutes of struggle against a rampant Aston Villa side. Partey would also suffer through 90 minutes of being isolated in the center against Leicester City while playing in a 3-man midfield with Granit Xhaka and Dani Ceballos that was extremely poor in their 1-0 loss. Things never seemed to click with that setup.

After his 45 minutes against Aston Villa, he was pulled out with a thigh injury. He would carry that until Arsenal played Tottenham and he re-injured the same spot and would again come off at the 45 minute mark. That injury kept him out for over a month and left Arsenal fans waiting with anticipation to see him play once more.

Throughout that time, many wondered, theorized, and argued over who presented themselves as the best midfield partner for Partey. Who would rise the challenge with Thomas and lock down the midfield carousel? Slowly over time, Elneny’s outstanding form to start the campaign fizzled, and while he still presents an outstanding option off the bench, the conversation then revolved around Granit Xhaka and Dani Ceballos.

Ceballos has been out the last few matches recovering from a minor calf injury and Granit Xhaka has been very good. However, it’s not been him that has risen up and suggested they are the perfect balancing act with Arsenal’s prized summer signing. No, this player has swept Gooner-nation off their feet, he’s been a catalyst in Arsenal’s recent success, and his play beautifully contrasts most of Arenal’s squad offering the side something different. Of course, I am talking about Emile Smith Rowe.

The Partey-Smith Rowe pair put on a fantastic performance against Newcastle and demonstrated how the differences in their game, meshed with similar philosophies, can produce some of the best midfield play of the season.

While Partey offers that playmaking ability from deep, versus Smith Rowe’s abilities between the lines, it’s the economic nature of their game that aligns the two. Much of their game is done with one, two, three touches. Together they are bringing a zip back to the midfield that has been missing in recent years. Praise Xhaka as much as you want for these last few performances, it’s hard to argue that he offers consistent zip with his game.

It’s a refreshing change and a much needed one. Aubameyang’s goal, assisted by Partey, is a prime example. Partey gets the ball, dips his shoulder and accelerates to leave the defender behind in the midfield, and hits a beautifully weighted pass into Aubameyang in space. His whole movement in complete in four touches, he has succeeded in getting the ball from back to front quickly — a goal of Arteta’s attack — and he’s done it all with quality.

Arsenal’s second goal, assisted by Smith Rowe, is less of an example of having mastered the game of low-touch quality, but showcases a second skill that both these midfielders offer. Smith Rowe receives the ball in the wing, takes a positive touch and is running at the isolated defender to beat him one-on-one. Both of these midfielders possess the ability to carry the ball, complete a dribble, and end the movement with a dangerous bit of play.

To round off both of these skills and make it a hat trick, it’s the positive intent and progressive nature of both player’s attacking game that makes the above points shine. The ball gets to their feet and quickly their first touch sets them up to be positive. Their head is scanning ahead of them to find a way forward and the ball is off their foot.

In the Newcastle game, Partey racked up 408 yards of progressive passing, 113 yards for Emile Smith Rowe. Keep in mind, that much of Smith Rowe’s game is played in the opposition’s third which limits the amount of progressive yards he has at his disposal. Additionally, Partey had 222 progressive yards carried, 176 for Smith Rowe. Granit Xhaka may have beaten both these players with 508 progressive passing yards and 223 yards carried, but he had nearly double the amount of touches both players had in the match to do it.

Outside of possession, the workrate doesn’t stop. Not to disparage Mesut Ozil but Emile Smith Rowe has impressed immensely with his work off the ball to win it back. Against Newcastle he has 8 pressures resulting in 3 successful pressures, as well as 7 recoveries. He’s helping orchestrate the press with the front three and when there are turnovers he switches on quickly looking to win it back.

Partey we of course know has droves of talent off the ball and the stats back it up. Against Newcastle he had 10 presses with 5 successful pressures, 2 tackles, and 10 recoveries.

In his recent autobiography, Arsene Wenger stated that, “our sport depends on three criteria: ball control, decision-making, quality of execution.”

It’s incredibly hard to argue against the man, so if that’s true, it’s fair to say Arsenal have two players with a high-level of all three of those skills… and they do it faster than anyone else in the side. They have proven themselves to be great two-way midfielders and their balance of skills offers fantastic compatibility.

Two playmakers — one deep, one between the lines, moving into the wings — both covering some of the highest distance totals in the match equalling one excellent duo. Long may it continue!

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