As was the case in the 2018-19 season, no team seems to want to finish fourth in the Premier League. Manchester United were the big winners at the weekend, a hat-trick from Cristiano Ronaldo helping them to beat Norwich and pick up three vital points as Tottenham, Arsenal and West Ham all stumbled.
Before their defeat to Liverpool last month, Arsenal were in the driving seat to join Manchester City, Liverpool and Chelsea in the Champions League next season. They were fourth in the table, a point clear of Manchester United with three games in hand, and six points clear of Spurs with a game in hand on Antonio Conte’s side. Even after their defeat to Liverpool – a game they were expected to lose given the visitors ’incredible run of form and impressive record at the Emirates – they seemed to be in pole position.
Their collapse in recent weeks has been almost, dare we say it, Spursy. Their 1-0 defeat to Southampton over the weekend was their third on the trot and their fourth in five games, with a narrow win at Aston Villa the only bright spark in a dreary run of form. Arsenal have only scored two goals in their last five games.
Arsenal may still recover in time to grasp that final Champions League spot – Spurs are currently fourth and they are hardly in great form either – but they will need to do so without Thomas Partey. The Ghanaian picked up a calf injury in Arsenal’s 3-0 defeat at Crystal Palace earlier this month and looks likely to miss the run-in. Speaking before Arsenal’s defeat to Southampton, Mikel Arteta said it was “not looking very positive for his availability this season”. The former Atlético Madrid midfielder has been exceptional this season and is proving to be a big loss for Arteta.
Partey had a so-so debut campaign in the Premier League, but he has improved a lot this season. Without him in the middle of the park, Arsenal have lost their driving force from deep in Arteta’s favored 4-2-3-1 system and this has a damaging effect on the team as a whole. Arsenal’s win ratio drops from 65.2% to 25% when Partey does not start. The number of goals they score decreases (from 1.83 to just 0.38 per 90 minutes) and the number of goals they concede rises (from 1.09 to 1.50 per game).
Partey makes them tick. He has a better dribble success rate (81.4%) than any of the 158 players who have attempted 25 or more dribbles in the Premier League this season. For Arsenal, that is streaks ahead of his closest competitor, his midfield partner Granit Xhaka (65%), and even that is from just 20 attempted dribbles.
When Partey is not in the side, Arsenal struggle to create chances through the middle of the park. He is also a reliable midfield option who can receive the ball from his center-backs under pressure, shake off opponents and drive the team forward. His ball retention qualities may not be as good as other midfielders but his ability to ghost past opponents and start attacks more than makes up for that weakness.
He is also effective off the ball. Partey shields the defense well and, with a return of 1.9 tackles per 90 minutes, he is more than capable of robbing opponents of possession before gliding upfield and quickly turning defense into attack. With Takehiro Tomiyasu and Kieran Tierney also out injured, Arsenal look vulnerable at the back.
Over the coming days, they travel across London to face Chelsea before hosting top-four rivals Manchester United in a crunch match on Saturday. With Partey fit and available, Arsenal would have fancied their chances of picking up positive results in those fixtures. Now, they are approaching both games on a poor run, low on confidence and without a key player. Part time at the Emirates? Not at the moment, it’s not.