Arsenal news: Mikel Arteta’s tactical blunder with Thomas Partey leaves him under pressure | Football | Sport
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When Arsenal forked out £45million to sign Thomas Partey from Atletico Madrid in October, the transfer was viewed as a signal of intent from the club’s hierarchy. Fast-forward seven months and Partey has become a lightning rod for fan rage after the Gunners’ shocking performance in the Europa League semi-final.
Arsenal slipped in slow motion at the competition’s penultimate hurdle, face-planting into the obstacle ironically put in their way by their much-maligned former manager Unai Emery.
Their 0-0 draw against Villarreal on Thursday night was an embarrassment. They were fortunate it took place behind closed doors, with BT Sport’s fake crowd noise providing the backdrop, rather than the anger, disappointment and disillusionment which played out on social media instead of at the Emirates.
Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang may have struck the post twice but really Villarreal – the sixth-best side in Spain from a small town of 50,000 people – never looked in much danger as they comfortably held onto their 2-1 aggregate lead to reach their first major final.
There were countless problems on display for Arsenal as they fumbled around, trying in a disjointed fashion to try and summon some quality. But the most obvious was Partey.
The Ghanaian international is an experienced player and is used to the pressure of big European nights, but you wouldn’t have known it watching last night.
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Partey looked all at sea in midfield, constantly making basic errors, losing possession and taking heavy touches. He was given the keys to drive in Arsenal’s biggest game of the season yet looked like he didn’t have a licence.
The more you watched on, though, the more you felt sorry for him. It was not his fault. Ultimately the blame lay with his manager, who gave him an unrealistic role and then failed to rectify his glaringly obvious mistake.
Having opted to play Emile Smith Rowe in an unfamiliar false nine position in the first leg unsuccessfully, Mikel Arteta made another blunder in the second leg.
Yes, he was unfortunate to lose Granit Xhaka to injury in the warm-up, but the Swiss midfielder was due to play at left-back, not in his more familiar position. He was replaced by an actual left-back, Kieran Tierney.
That means that fielding Partey in a one-man midfield behind Smith Rowe and Martin Odegaard was the plan all along. It was a terrible plan which was easily circumvented every time Villarreal – led by former Arsenal man Francis Coquelin – bothered to play a simple one-two or run into the acres of space at the heart of the Gunners.
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Partey was often left by himself in the centre of the pitch
Had they not been content to hold onto their lead, Emery’s side surely could have exploited the weakness to greater effect.
After Arsenal had watched their season crumble in front of their eyes, with Arteta’s attacking changes making no difference whatsoever, it fell on Martin Keown to point out the obvious.
“It was the tactics from the manager, completely outnumbered in that midfield and that was the tactical plan that Arteta went with,” the former Arsenal defender said bluntly on BT Sport, trying to make sense of what he’d just seen.
He continued: “We made a mistake. We should have had two midfield players side-by-side in that midfield, for compactness. We didn’t have the right balance in that midfield.”
Arteta was asked by BT Sport if he felt his formation had allowed Arsenal to be overrun in midfield. He replied: “I don’t think so.”
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He went on to make all manner of excuses, showing a complete lack of awareness as he stuck firmly to his party line of denial.
“We tried everything up until the last minute,” he said. “I think over two legs, and with what happened in the second half here, I think we deserved to win the game. But the details define these ties.”
He added: “In the defining moments you should have everyone available at their best, and so many things happened to us, so many players just trying to compete but not at their best and that’s a big disadvantage.”
Ultimately, as the manager, those responsibilities lie with Arteta. Partey was poor, but a £45m player doesn’t become a bad one overnight. Partey has proven himself at the highest level with Atletico Madrid.
For all of his unrivalled schooling under Pep Guardiola, and for all his bluster in front of a microphone, Arteta has not.