Football News

Europe’s ‘safest’ dribbler or a Messi favourite? Two competing solutions for Arsenal’s “very strange” possession problem

By Chris Smith

Arsenal transfer news: Thomas Partey Aouar

Published: 16:45, 21 September 2020

Mikel Arteta thought Arsenal’s performance against West Ham on Saturday was one of their worst since he became manager, despite winning 2-1.

The Gunners waited until the 85th minute for Eddie Nketiah to hand them the victory after Michail Antonio cancelled Alexandre Lacazette’s opener shortly before half-time.

After the match, Arteta revealed how his squad had just had its “best week” in training in terms of executing possession drills, only to see those signs of encouragement go out the window within the opening 15 minutes.

“Yes, certainly in the first 15 minutes and it’s very strange,” Arteta responded when asked if this was one of the poorest performances on the ball he’s seen from his side.

“We were talking with the staff. [The players] had the best week in terms of decision making, quality and execution with the ball by far since I joined the club. But then the first 15 minutes, they give the ball to the wrong colour [shirt] too often. We need to improve on that.”

Still, the Gunners’ victory leaves them with six points from their opening two games and Arteta even had to dismiss questions about a potential title tilt: “No, I think we are still very far away from where we want to be.”

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His remarks are all the more interesting in the context of Arsenal’s plans to sign a midfielder before deadline day, Atletico Madrid’s Thomas Partey and Lyon’s Houssem Aouar being the two players most frequently linked.

Partey has been praised by his manager, Diego Simeone, in the past for his ability to transition defence into attack with progressive, line-breaking passes. The 27-year-old averaged a team-high 8.53 passes into the final third per 90 minutes in La Liga last season, albeit in the team that played the third-fewest across the division overall.

Partey was also Atletico’s most prolific ball-winner (7.86) and completed the second-most take-ons (2.01). In total, Partey dribbled past an opponent 57 times, at least 20 more than any other Atletico player. Even more exceptional is that his 89% success rate was the highest among the 348 players to attempt 50 take-ons or more during the 2019-20 league season.

“Thomas is the player who best understands this position of transition from defence into attack with shots and passes between the lines,” Simeone told Diario AS. “When he is at a level with continuity, he is so important that the best teams in Europe do want him.”

Aouar, meanwhile, managed four goals and eight assists across Ligue 1 and Champions League play combined last season, including setting up Lyon’s second goal in a 3-1 win over Manchester City in August. Following that match, Kevin De Bruyne singled out Aouar’s “fantastic” performance while Pep Guardiola had previously lavished praise on his “excellent technical quality” after a meeting between the two sides in 2018.

The Frenchman was second only to Memphis Depay (16) for chances created (11) by Lyon players in the Champions League last season, while he completed their highest number of take-ons (35).

“He is always calm with the ball at his feet with an excellent technical quality,” Lionel Messi said of Aouar when naming his 15 “youth on the rise” players for Topps earlier this year.

So will Arsenal sign either midfielder before October 5th? That seems to depend on whether technical director Edu finds a willing buyer for one of Arteta’s fringe players.

Aouar is really appreciated by Mikel Arteta. Guendouzi was discussed during the call. He is a great player, but he is the wrong profile. We are not interested in that at all, we cut the conversation.Juninho, talking to RMC in September

Edu’s counterpart at Lyon, Juninho, confirmed they have turned down Matteo Guendouzi while also stating publicly that Arteta is interested in Aouar. The club’s president, Jean-Michel Aulas, says no offer has arrived as of yet and questioned Arsenal’s willingness to meet their valuation (reported to be £44m).

Meanwhile, Uruguayan journalist Sebas Giovanelli claimed Simeone has contacted Arsenal midfielder Lucas Torreira regarding a possible move to Madrid. Giovanelli works with Sport 890, a publication Torreira spoke to earlier in the summer while expressing an openness to moving on.

Sell Torreira to Partey’s current club this summer, and things might start falling into place for Arsenal’s transfer plans, which should help avoid any more “strange” games for Arteta.