Thomas Partey has been a good, serviceable professional footballer for four years now — particularly since the 2017–2018 season when Diego Simeone increased his playing time. Last season Partey was a mainstay in a midfield that relies heavily on the defensive discipline of its central players, with the extra contingency that they can produce efficient attacks in transition. Partey rose to the challenge. He developed into one of the team’s chief organizers and was good for the odd long-distance goal while creating from deep. Partey is now more. He’s gone from a piece of the puzzle to an indispensable cog. He thwarts the attacks of opponents with his masterful positioning, then guts them the other way with a surgical vertical pass. He’s comfortable under pressure. He still strikes stingers from long range.
Atlético are treading water offensively, especially with João Felix missing six games (and potentially more) due to a sprained ankle. Álvaro Morata pops up for goals randomly, not consistently. The team has scored 15 league goals — the worst mark among the top 5 teams and the 3rd worst among the top 13. Strip out their one penalty and they are left with 14 goals which slightly trails a non-penalty expected goal total of 16.66, behind not only their two traditional rivals, Barcelona and Real Madrid, but also Villarreal; they're also virtually tied with Sevilla. To make up for this, their defense has to be impenetrable. It has been. And Partey’s ball retention and positioning has been a huge reason why.
Head coach Diego Simeone knew the leap was coming. Last year he deemed the Ghananian "non-transferrable." This season it’s hard to imagine Atlético functioning without him. "If he had come from an English or German team, he would be [lauded],” Simeone said in October. “But he's from the academy and he's just Thomas." Partey’s emergence is perfect for a team like Atléti that don't like to play with pure anchors at the base of midfield. Rodri Hernández did not thrive as half the double pivot (which really consists of four central midfielders in a conservative midfield line) in Simeone’s scheme. There is no place for Marcos Llorente, who shines in a 4-3-3. Partey, on the other hand, has assumed all the responsibilities of a defensive midfielder while contributing to the attack. Despite the narratives, Atléti do push forward — particularly on the flanks. Both Kieran Trippier and Renan Lodi leave space behind them as advanced fullbacks. Partey’s role in organizing coverage for both is huge, as is his task in making sure they get the ball when they make those overloading runs:
Atlético are reliant on Thomas’s build-up abilities. He’s incredibly good at slinging vertical passes. And Partey will exploit any opponent's loose defensive structure if he’s on the field:
That was against Real Madrid, in a game where both teams canceled each other out by shifting most of their play through the flanks. Real Madrid midfielders put up good individual performances, but were loose in their defensive shape — something Partey exploited regularly, with an astounding passing performance. As you can see below, he not only completed a high volume of passes, (73 of 82) but did so while moving the ball vertically up the pitch. Partey can hook accurate long-range balls behind presses in order to break them. If all else fails, he’ll carry the ball up the field and join the attack.
Partey's ability to move the ball up the field is crucial for Atléti. He's the sixth most prolific deep progressor of the ball in La Liga (among players with more than 600 minutes played), and his 8.46 deep progressions rank behind only Real Madrid's Toni Kroos, Barcelona's Frenkie de Jong and Arthur, Ever Banega of Sevilla and Dani Parejo of Valencia. And he increasingly stands out at Atléti as the team's main creative hub in the middle of the pitch.
And when he gets into the attacking phase, the pressure doesn’t unnerve him:
Partey’s rise to become one of the best midfielders in La Liga didn't occur overnight. He’s been consistent throughout his Atlético career. But his ability is more evident now because he’s more of a focal point than in years past. Gabi and Rodri have both moved on, and Koke remains inconsistent. Saúl is often played as a winger (six times Simeone has deployed him there this season, and other times as a makeshift left-back) — making Partey the single most important central midfielder Simeone has at his disposal. The eye test with the Ghanian has been phenomenal. Atlético may be laborious to watch offensively, but they are just one point off first place (although Barcelona and Real Madrid both have a game in hand). Partey is a big part of Atlético’s stability and defensive success. When João Felix comes back, he'll help the Ghanaian create chances from deeper positions. The two should be a cornerstone of Atlético's team for years to come.