Parallels can be drawn between the deadline day arrival of Mesut Ozil at Arsenal back in 2013 and that of Thomas Partey this year. In both cases, the Gunners needed a big name signing to validate the rebuilding job happening at the Emirates Stadium. And in both cases, it took Arsenal until the final hours of the summer window to get an agreement with a club from the Spanish capital over the line.
There is, therefore, some familiarity to what Arsenal fans have seen in the €50 million signing of Thomas from Atletico Madrid. They have been here before, in need of a creative midfielder to spark their team into life, and yet the Ghanaian is unlike anything the Gunners have seen for a long time.
Thomas’ arrival comes at a time when Ozil has been exiled from Arteta’s first team, left out of Arsenal’s 25-man squad for the 2020/21 Premier League season. Thomas is not a direct replacement for the German playmaker, though. He has been signed to give Arteta more creativity to work with, but the creativity Thomas offers is a different brand to Ozil’s.
For starters, they occupy different areas of the pitch. While Ozil is something of an orthodox number 10, best deployed behind a central striker where he can link up attacking play, Thomas is most comfortable in a deep-lying role in front of the back four. It would be lazy to categorise him a defensive midfielder, though.
The 27-year-old is perhaps the best example of a new mould of midfielder. Positionally, they are defensive, providing protection to the defenders behind them and breaking up opposition moves. Effectively, though, they are attack-minded midfielders, just starting from a deeper area of the pitch than is conventional.
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Last season was Thomas’ most impressive so far, shining for Atleti even as they struggled at times. The Champions League saw the very best of the Ghanian with his display in the stunning 3-2 win over Liverpool at Anfield possibly enough to convince Arteta of his suitability for the Premier League.
No Atletico Madrid player made more tackles (28) in last season’s Champions League than Thomas. He also ranked top among his teammates for total touches of the ball (639), passes into the final third (81) and open play chances created (11). Only two Atleti players registered more shots (15) than him too. These statistics do a good job of outlining Thomas’ profile as a player.
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Arteta was also almost certainly drawn to Thomas by his tactical intelligence and positional awareness. The Arsenal boss has had to be patient in his instilling of new values and principles in his players, taking over a group that had grown accustomed to coasting by under Unai Emery and towards the end of the Arsene Wenger years. Arteta wants his players to think and the signs point to Thomas having the capacity to absorb his ideas.
A strong argument can be made that even with Thomas in the side, Arsenal need an Ozil-type creator. Houssem Aouar looked destined to be that figure until Lyon dug their heels in over the fee they wanted for him. The Gunners could return for the France international in January or next summer. Aouar and Thomas, alongside someone like Granit Xhaka, bring real balance to Arteta’s side.
For the time being, though, Thomas’ arrival might allow Arteta to channel creativity through his team in a different way. Thomas might not be an Ozil replacement, but he can help Arsenal forget about the German. At a time when the agenda is being dominated by Ozil’s continued exile, and the reasons for it, another deadline day signing could move the conversation on.