Exclusive: Why Arsenal made the correct decision prioritising Thomas Partey over Houssem Aouar / 101 speaks to French football expert Jeremy Smith

MANCHESTER, ENGLAND - OCTOBER 17: Mikel Arteta, Manager of Arsenal talks to Thomas Partey of Arsenal before making his debut during the Premier League match between Manchester City and Arsenal at Etihad Stadium on October 17, 2020 in Manchester, England. Sporting stadiums around the UK remain under strict restrictions due to the Coronavirus Pandemic as Government social distancing laws prohibit fans inside venues resulting in games being played behind closed doors. (Photo by Michael Regan/Getty Images)

Arsenal’s 1-0 home defeat to Leicester was a frustrating one for Gunners fans to endure. Dominant and in possession for the majority of the game, creativity was lacking. Chances came and went but the quality of service was skewed towards the left flank and Kieran Tierney’s crossing.

The right lacked dynamism. Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang initially and then Nicolas Pepe. Both in combination with Hector Bellerin could do little to concern a sturdy Foxes defence.

The fallout from the match saw many Arsenal fans take to social media to question why the club decided to sign Thomas Partey over Houssem Aouar. Arsenal’s central creativity above all areas has been dire. The wings are saturated and the Gunners have become predictable making them easy to defend against.

Therefore it is right to ask the question whether the money spent on Partey should have been spent on Aouar? The answer however, falls clearly in the Ghanaian’s favour for many reasons.

The original structure

When Arteta arrived at the club it was in a defensive mess. The back four was regularly broken down and cheap goals were conceded in big games. Even several games under the initial Arteta back four mistakes were made. Tammy Abraham’s goal at the Emirates which robbed Arsenal of points against Chelsea is a perfect example.

To compensate, Arteta switched to a back 3 with wing backs either side. In the FA Cup against Manchester City and Chelsea this system worked flawlessly. The combination of Tierney, David Luiz and one of Rob Holding or Shkodran Mustafi got the best from the typically vulnerable centre halves. Whilst Tierney was able to penetrate the left flank with balls in behind for Aubameyang.

The original 3-4-3 system Arteta deployed effectively which won the 2020 FA Cup.

The original 3-4-3 system Arteta deployed effectively which won the 2020 FA Cup.

Hector Bellerin and Ainsley Maitland-Niles held defensive positions when without the ball but supported the attack when on the offensive. Granit Xhaka and Dani Ceballos played defensively and, without a third central midfielder in a free attacking role, sprayed passes out to the wide areas. This worked, but it was passive and relied on the taking of few chances made throughout the game.

In the games against Manchester City and Liverpool the big chances, few that they were, were not taken. Arsenal ended up losing those games even though they remained competitive and ‘in the game’ throughout.

A midfield signing was needed in order for a change to happen. Arsenal needed to add creativity to the midfield without compromising defensive stability.


On Deadline Day Arsenal signed Thomas Partey from Atletico Madrid. This was after a reported prolonged pursuit of Lyon’s Houssem Aouar which failed to materialised and the Frenchman remained in his homeland.

To ensure Arsenal can become more offensive, a switch away from the defensive 3-4-3 to a formation with a back 4 is the way forward. Arteta has attempted it on a couple occasions this season already. The signing of Aouar could have enabled a switch to a formation shown below.

Arteta could have fielded Aouar as a number 10 in behind Aubameyang flanked by Bukayo Saka and Nicolas Pepe.

Arteta could have fielded Aouar as a number 10 in behind Aubameyang flanked by Bukayo Saka and Nicolas Pepe.

Aouar’s creativity could have fed the striker and wide personnel with incisive passes and arguably increased chance creation. However there are some issues with this choice.


Firstly, two of Xhaka, Ceballos or Mohammed Elneny would have partnered as the double pivot. The defensive midfield roles in the Arsenal side has plagued the Gunners throughout the last decade and more. Players caught out, inconsistent and slow. Arsenal have played Mesut Ozil as a number 10 with differing combinations of number 6s and 8s in a pivot behind.

Whilst the results led to plenty of created chances, the defensive vulnerabilities of the deeper midfielders exposed the back four and led to mistakes. The addition of Aouar does improve the side creatively but the same defensive midfield errors would remain present.

Secondly is Aouar himself. 101 spoke with French football expert Jeremy Smith. Regarding Aouar’s position, Smith believes that the number 10 role is not where he would work best. “For me he is best as a number 8, controlling stuff in midfield, finding pockets of space and using his quick feet to keep things moving.”


“But in terms of creativity – I don’t really see him as a number 10 and while his assists stats aren’t bad, I think he’s more of a penultimate pass kind of player.”

One of the biggest issues with Ozil was the unfortunate trait of going missing in games which Arsenal overall were under-performing in. Asking whether Aouar is the type to excel whilst others falter, Smith was not encouraging.

“All this again leads to the fact that, while everything around him is ticking along well, he is at his best and most comfortable. But when others are off their best, I don’t think he does enough – at least not yet – to raise his game and raise the game of those around him, as top players should,” said Smith.

“The fact that he can raise his game for the really big UCL matches is arguably a double-edged sword – shows that he has the ability but makes you wonder why he doesn’t do it week in week out. For me, at the moment, he’s not shown enough consistency or personality to really merit that big move.”


Jeremy Smith highlights aspects of Aouar’s game which are on the contrary to Thomas Partey. The Ghanaian has been a consistent force for Atletico Madrid. The utter stalwart position Atleti took with Partey over the summer is evidence enough. Simeone did not want to lose Partey whatsoever.

Partey provides Arsenal with the world class quality deep midfielder which they have been in such dire need of for so long. As Arteta begins to transition to a back 4, Partey allows the defence security and the full-backs the comfortability to get forward. This was evident with how high both full-backs were able to get up the field against Leicester City.

Tierney (left), Partey (central) and Bellerin (right) heat maps against Leicester City. (Source: Wyscout)

Tierney (left), Partey (central) and Bellerin (right) heat maps against Leicester City. (Source: Wyscout)

Thomas Partey provides the Gunners the potential to progress and become a better side than they have over the last decade. However, he cannot do it alone and the creative central spark needs to come from somewhere. In a perfect world, Arsenal would have been able to sign both Partey and Aouar. In January, that could still occur, however, there are plenty of points to compete for before then.

The options, whilst plentiful, are not guarantees. The options available to Arteta are Dani Ceballos, Bukayo Saka, Willian, Joe Willock and Emile Smith-Rowe. The suggestion that Alexandre Lacazette could play in the hole is not valid considering the lack of creativity the Frenchman would provide.

Saka has been one of the Gunners most creative players since his breakthrough. Usually a wide man, there is scope for the senior England international to play inside. The difficulty then is who plays wide left if £72 million Nicolas Pepe plays right? Aubameyang’s lack of goals suggests movement to the middle is necessary. Therefore Willian remains the only option until the return of Gabriel Martinelli.

There lies intrigue in how Emile Smith-Rowe may integrate into the team this season. If well, it could see Saka shift back wide and Smith-Rowe occupy the central attacking midfield role. But with little senior experience at the top level this is probably wishful thinking.


Thomas Partey’s purchase signifies the ability of the club to move forward. Upgrading the deep midfield positions was of utmost importance but an Arsenal side lacking in creativity needs to be addressed.

Aouar has not arrived, not yet anyway, and Arteta must find a way to increase the output of the side’s chance creation. With Manchester United the next side in line, it would be unsurprising for Arteta to revert to the 3-4-3 which has had success in fixtures against the ‘top 6’ sides. However, with an outcry for Arsenal to be protagonists in these games, maybe the Spaniard should avoid the defensive and take another risk.

Thursday’s match against Dundalk allows experimentation. The hope is Arteta is brave, if he isn’t and fails the pressure from the fan base is sure to grow.

See also:  Exclusive: “He has the talent to develop into a real top class player.” Former Huddersfield Head of Football Operations heaps praise on Arsenal’s Smith-Rowe

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Premier League table

# Team MP D P
1 Everton FC 6 5 13
2 Liverpool FC 6 1 13
3 Aston Villa FC 5 7 12
4 Leeds United 6 3 10
5 Southampton FC 6 1 10
6 Crystal Palace FC 6 -1 10
7 Chelsea FC 6 4 9
8 Leicester City FC 5 4 9
9 Arsenal FC 5 2 9
10 Wolverhampton Wanderers FC 5 -2 9
11 Tottenham Hotspur FC 5 7 8
12 West Ham United FC 6 4 8
13 Manchester City FC 5 0 8
14 Newcastle United FC 5 -2 7
15 Manchester United FC 5 -3 7
16 Brighton & Hove Albion FC 5 -2 4
17 West Bromwich Albion 5 -8 2
18 Burnley FC 4 -5 1
19 Sheffield United FC 6 -6 1
20 Fulham FC 6 -9 1
Player Team Goals
Son, Heung Min Tottenham Hotspur FC 7
Calvert-Lewin, Dominic Everton FC 7
Salah, Mohamed Liverpool FC 6
Vardy, Jamie Leicester City FC 6
Bamford, Patrick Leeds United 6
Kane, Harry Tottenham Hotspur FC 5
Zaha, Wilfried Crystal Palace FC 5
Ings, Danny Southampton FC 4
Wilson, Callum Newcastle United FC 4
Mane, Sadio Liverpool FC 4
Maupay, Neal Brighton & Hove Albion FC 4
Jimenez, Raul Wolverhampton Wanderers FC 4
Rodriguez, James Everton FC 3
Grealish, Jack Aston Villa FC 3
Jorginho Chelsea FC 3
Fernandes, Bruno Manchester United FC 3
Watkins, Ollie Aston Villa FC 3
Antonio, Michail West Ham United FC 3
Lacazette, Alexandre Arsenal FC 3
Bowen, Jarrod West Ham United FC 3

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