Midfield Could Be Key For Arsenal in North London Derby

In this strangest and most congested of seasons, which has a World Cup slap bang in the middle of it, club managers will be more anxious than ever about the return of their players from international duty. For Mikel Arteta at Arsenal, there is surely one player who he will worry about more than any other – Thomas Partey, his midfield lynchpin, who even in non-World Cup seasons has shown a propensity to miss games through injury.

Midfield to be Key for Arsenal in North London Derby

Thomas Partey Fitness

There have been strong rumours this week that Partey will not be fit for the crucial Saturday lunchtime match against Tottenham Hotspur, which will be the first of the Premier League weekend, or at the very least will face a late fitness test to establish whether he can play. Partey did not play for Ghana in their midweek friendly against Brazil, which the Ghana manager, Otto Addo, said afterwards was largely precautionary. However, Arsenal fans have grown so used to Partey being unable to play since he moved to the Emirates from Atletico Madrid that many of them will fear the worst.

The unfortunate truth is that Partey is the midfield general who is too often missing from action. Although he had an exemplary fitness record in Spain, the greater pace, power and sheer number of games, especially highly competitive ones, in the Premier League compared to La Liga has meant that he has been unable so far to string together the consistent runs of games that were the hallmark of his time at Atletico.

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Partey’s importance to Arsenal can hardly be overstated. In his very first game for the club, he was instrumental in the Gunners achieving a rare win at Old Trafford in the autumn of 2020. Indeed, he performed so well that afterwards Roy Keane said on Sky that he wished Manchester United had signed him rather than Arsenal. From Keane, arguably the finest midfield enforcer of the Premier League era, that was high praise indeed, especially when he rarely delivers praise of any kind for current players.

Nevertheless, since that debut for Arsenal, Partey has been unable to build on it by playing consistently. He has suffered such a series of injuries that, for all his obvious physical attributes (in particular power, pace and height), it would surely have been better if Arteta had made signing a like-for-like replacement for him this summer an absolute priority. However, despite rumoured interest in Leicester City’s Youri Tielemans, Aston Villa’s Douglas Luiz and several other central defensive midfielders, Arteta failed to do so, and that could be the non-signing that returns to haunt him.

No Real Replacement For Partey in the Arsenal Squad

However much Arteta might deny it, especially if Partey is unable to play against Spurs, there is no real replacement for him in the Arsenal squad at the moment. In his time at the Emirates, Granit Xhaka has arguably suffered from the kind of nominative determinism that suggests a man named Granit should also be granite in nature: tough (and well-timed) in the tackle, and primarily a defensive midfielder. In reality, as most Arsenal fans have now learned after six long seasons of sending-offs and the odd two-finger gesture, Granit is essentially an attacking midfielder, or in modern footballing terminology a number eight, rather than a defensive midfielder or number six.

Xhaka has generally impressed for Arsenal this season, at times coming close to replicating the form that he has often shown for his national side, Switzerland, not least in Arsenal’s last game against Brentford when he brilliantly curled in a cross for Gabriel Jesus to head in Arsenal’s second goal. However, he generally impresses for Arsenal when he has Partey playing behind him. When the Ghanaian is missing, as he was at Old Trafford against Manchester United, Xhaka is not nearly as impressive, either going forwards or going back.

Partey’s supposed replacements at defensive midfield have yet to show that they are up to the job. Albert Sambi Lokonga signed in the summer of 2021 with a burgeoning reputation as the next big thing in the Belgium midfield – almost a proto-Tielemans. However, he is yet to show the kind of consistent form that will seriously challenge Partey for his place or reassure Arsenal fans that he can deputise in Partey’s absence. Equally, Mohamed Elneny, the Gunners’ fourth central midfielder, has never done enough in his six seasons at the club to suggest that he is a player of the calibre of Gilles Grimandi, let alone the players who Grimandi deputised for, namely Patrick Vieira and Emmanuel Petit.

If Only Oleksandr Zinchenko Had a Twin Brother

Frustratingly for Arteta and Arsenal fans, the obvious deputy for Partey in the squad is already the obvious deputy for Arsenal’s other most injury-prone player, left-back Kieran Tierney, who is also an injury doubt for the North London derby. Although Oleksandr Zinchenko has played for the bulk of his Premier League career, with both Manchester City and Arsenal, as a full-back, he usually plays in midfield for his country, Ukraine, and even when he plays at full-back he has been encouraged, first by Pep Guardiola and then by Arteta, to advance into midfield when his team are in possession. Many Arsenal fans have wished that Zinchenko had a twin brother because then one of them could deputise permanently for Tierney with the other permanently covering Partey. Unfortunately, unless Zinchenko has a long-lost sibling that he knows nothing about, that is not the case.

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Finally, what is perhaps most baffling for Arsenal fans to understand is that Arteta, who played in central midfield himself, has three other players out on loan – permanent loan, it seems, until they are sold – all of whom could have been brought back to reinforce Arsenal’s biggest area of weakness. Matteo Guendouzi, Lucas Torreira and Ainsley Maitland-Niles are certainly not world-beaters, but any one of them is surely preferable to either Sambi Lokonga at this stage of his career or Elneny at any stage of his career. However, having apparently fallen out with each one of them, it seems that the Arsenal manager is not for turning and will instead limp on, at least until the January transfer window, with the players he already has at the club.

The Spurs Midfield Could Expose Arsenal’s Weakness in That Area

If Partey is absent against Spurs, and especially if Tierney is also missing so that Zinchenko has to replace him rather than the Ghanaian, there is a real danger that Arsenal’s relative weakness in midfield – relative, that is, to their vastly improved defence and attack – could be exposed. In Rodrigo Bentancur and Pierre-Emile Højbjerg, Antonio Conte has not one but two of the type of solid, unspectacular but defensively sound central midfielder that Arsenal might be completely lacking in Partey’s absence. If the Spurs duo are able to gain control of central midfield, or even if they are able just to provide the defensive cover that allows the fearsome attackers that Spurs have (Kane, Son, Kulusevski and Richarlison) to attack and particularly counter-attack freely, Arsenal could be in big trouble.

If that proves to be the case, Arteta will be forced to reflect again on why he has failed to provide adequate cover for Partey, despite the accumulated evidence of two seasons that, at least in the Premier League, the Ghanaian is injury-prone. Partey is a fine player and in the absence of a real replacement for him he might even be Arsenal’s most important player. At the same time, however, there is a very real danger that his continuing absence from key matches could prove to be not so much Arsenal’s Achilles heel as their Achilles midriff.