Could Arsenal star Thomas Partey be Mikel Arteta’s Fernandinho equivalent?

Thomas Partey

Pep Guardiola's meeting with Mikel Arteta on Saturday evening is a clash befitting of the Master vs The Apprentice headline.

Arteta takes his hungry side, invigorated by the deadline day arrival of Thomas Partey, to the Etihad Stadium to face a Manchester City side who appear to be reaching the end of a trophy-laden cycle.

Sitting on the home bench will be Arteta's teacher, his inspiration, a close friend and almost paternal-like figure.

During his time at City, the Gunners boss spent his time glued to Guardiola on the substitutes bench like a conjoined twin, listening to every raving rant and chime of wisdom as if he were a hitman taking orders on where and when to complete his next assignment.

What the promising manager was actually doing was immersing himself in the mindset of a true footballing genius. Listening is a skill that few possess and many take for granted, but Arteta's vacant yet paradoxically intense expression always hinted that the information was being stored and analysed deep inside his developing tactical brain.

Since arriving in north London those years of immersing himself in Guardiola’s thinking have manifested in Arteta's philosophy.

Arteta and Guardiola

Arsenal's insistence on playing short from goal kicks is a sure-fire way to spike the blood pressure of long-ball - "just get it out lads" - traditionalists, but it's also a stark example of the players' commitment to realising Arteta’s vision for the club.

Facilitating such a brave strategy, which to the average spectator can appear ludicrously illogical, takes years of training ground practice and, importantly, the meticulous selection of players both internally and in the transfer market.

Guardiola's sides have been revered for the beauty of their attacking play and steadfast commitment to constructing a style that strives to entertain, and unsurprisingly some of the most brilliant attacking players and playmaking wizards - Lionel Messi, Andres Iniesta, David Silva et al. - to grace the game have flourished under his tutelage.

Silva and Guardiola

But while it is, of course, impossible to concede a goal if you have control of the ball, inevitably even the most complete outfits are outwitted and surrender possession from time to time, which is exactly why holding midfielders have underpinned the great Guardiola teams.

Without a reliable pivot at the base of midfield, the whole system falls down. Barcelona’s Sergio Busquets was a pioneering master of the art of simultaneously retrieving and recycling the ball, and he established himself as the first in a line of players who executed the specific requirements of the modern holding midfield role so adroitly.

At Bayern Munich, Xabi Alonso and Arturo Vidal were both tasked with a similar job, and their collective ability to excel in the niche role enabled the Bavarian giants to clinch three successive Bundesliga titles under Guardiola.

And then came Fernandinho at City. The Brazil international had long been underappreciated beyond the Etihad Stadium, with perceptions of his ability falling well short of the broad repertoire of qualities he brings to the table.

Pep and Ferna

Without Fernandinho's intrinsic and indefatigable ability to interpret space in the defensive third, steal possession and instigate attacks with his expansive range of passing, City would never have become the same beast they are today.

That is a notion Guardiola himself has vocalised in the past. "Fernandinho can do everything," he said back in 2016, before going on to give a typically gushing assessment of his understated star: "If a team had three Fernandinhos, they would be champions."

Which swings us back round to Arteta and his early foray into management. While there are shades of Guardiola in the Spaniard's stylistic approach thus far, Arteta's regular use of a 3-5-2 system is something of a deviation from what we would expect of a free-flowing, possession-based outfit.

Arteta

But is the decision to deploy a 3-5-2 formation a result of short-term tactical pragmatism - dictated by the quality of the players at his disposal - or a sign of the direction in which Arteta is trying to take the club? Only he will know the answer to that question, though it may become apparent as the 2020/21 season unfolds.

The signing of Partey on deadline day, combined with the respective departures of Matteo Guendouzi and Lucas Torreira, may be an early indication of Arteta's plan to eventually revert to a 4-3-3 system in a move that would see him align more closely with his upcoming opponent.

The Ghana international could well be Arsenal's answer to Fernandinho, combining brains with brawn and providing the level of protection the likes of Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, Dani Ceballos and Nicolas Pepe need to play with genuine freedom.

Statistically speaking, there is compelling evidence to suggest Partey has the tools to embrace a similar role at Arsenal.

Thomas Partey

In Manchester City's title-winning 2018/19 season, Fernandinho completed 2 tackles, 1.4 interceptions and, much to the annoyance of most outside the club, 1.4 fouls per Premier League game, per Whoscored.

Over in La Liga, Partey boasted similar stats in the same season, recording 2.1 tackles, 1.5 interceptions and 1 foul per game. The parallels between the two players underline what Arsenal's new boy is likely to bring to the table from a defensive standpoint.

Can Partey be the emblem of Arteta's revolution? Possibly. Is he in the mould of the archetypal holding midfielder every Guardiola-influence side needs. Almost definitely.

The process of repositioning Arsenal’s dwindling status in English football will likely be fraught with false dawns, but this signing is unlikely to be one of them.

Arteta will be quietly confident of Partey’s potential to transform his side.

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