Born in Odumase Krobo in the southeast of Ghana, 18-year-old Thomas Partey captivated Atlético Madrid scouts with his technical skill and physical dominance whilst trialling for a second division club in Ghana. The scouts would go onto offer Thomas Partey the opportunity to showcase his talents in Spain. Partey accepted the offer with eager eyes telling no one except his father, which he recalls when speaking to Arsenal:
“My dad knew about it but then I told him not to tell anyone,” Partey said. “There was a saying that when everybody knows about your move, they can disturb you. That’s mostly in Ghana because I was playing with my friends and you never know what someone is thinking, so we just had to keep it secret until everyone saw it.”
The risk paid off for Partey, who signed for the Spanish giants and proceeded to play in their youth teams during the early stages of his development. In the next phase of his career, Partey would move to Mallorca on loan for the 2013/14 season. The manager at the time, José Luis Oltra, spoke to Sky Sports where he praised Partey’s dedication to football:
“He already had a lot of great attributes, but he was a boy who wanted to grow and improve. He was an excellent professional, which is vital for any footballer. He looked after himself, he loved football, and he lived a very organised life. Those factors have helped him reach the level he’s at now.”
After 34 appearances for Mallorca, Atlético would loan Partey to Almería, this time for first division football. He went on to play 32 matches for the side building his first-team experience, and earned himself a peculiar nickname. “I remember when I was in Almería they called me ‘the octopus’ because I stole a lot of balls.”
Despite a successful spell at the club for Partey, Almería suffered relegation falling six points short of safety. But Atlético Madrid manager Diego Simeone had seen enough of the player to suggest that he would become an integral part of his team and started to bed him into the heart of his Los Rojiblancos midfield. Not alone in his rise to the fore of Spanish football, Partey was one of many youngsters at Atlético Madrid starting to grow to prominence. Saúl Ñíguez, Ángel Correa and José Giménez were three of the most promising players alongside Partey.
The combination of immensely talented youth and the strong veteran figures at the club meant that Partey’s minutes were usually limited or out-of-position, and over the next four seasons, he would continue to learn under the strict guidance of Simeone. Then in the 2019/20 season, he finally received the opportunity to flourish.
Atlético had an eventful transfer window heading into the season, selling some of their biggest stars, including Antoine Griezmann to Barcelona and Lucas Hernandez to Bayern Munich. Most importantly for Partey was the sale of defensive midfielder Rodrigo Hernández Cascante otherwise known as Rodri, to Manchester City. The Spanish midfielder’s move paved the way for Partey to take centre stage and display his talents as the main act.
Playing at the core of Simeone’s defensive structure, Partey became the motor in midfield, delivering the horsepower to push Atlético up the pitch with his powerful strides and pinpoint passing. He also worked hard to keep the midfield watertight in defence. Thriving in Simeone’s system, the Ghanaian averaged 2.52 tackles per game, 1.95 blocks per game and 1.03 interceptions per game, living up to his now-notorious nickname.
Partey continued to light up La Liga, but it wasn’t until playing in the Champions League that the world started to take notice of the midfielder, and there are fewer spotlights brighter than the powerful beams of Anfield. Breaking up play, shielding possession, and distributing the ball, Partey took over the match leading his side to victory with a spellbinding performance against the competition’s defending champions. Quickly, Europe’s biggest clubs turned their attention to Partey following his virtuoso performance. Something which Diego Simeone recognised when talking to reporters:
“Thomas is the one who best understands this position and the transition from defence to attack, shooting, scoring, providing assists and playing passes between the lines.“When he’s at his best level consistently, he’s so good that all the best teams in Europe are looking at him.”
After a disappointing end to the season for Atlético Madrid, the inevitable happened. Arsenal pounced on the opportunity to sign Partey, triggering his release clause of £45 million on the final day of the summer transfer window. The customary media craze ensued as Arsenal fans worldwide welcomed Partey to the Emirates.
Unfortunately for Arsenal fans, Partey’s debut season started from the sidelines as the Ghanaian accumulated a multitude of injuries from the hip to hamstring, missing 17 matches. Forced to watch from the bench, Partey looked on as his teammates struggled to perform in the league, and by the midway point, the effects of his absence were painstakingly visible as Arsenal fell to tenth in the table. However, Partey returned from his bouts with injury and slotted comfortably into Mikel Arteta’s side, adding his matchless qualities to help turn fortunes for the better as Arsenal now make a push for the Europa League final.
Partey’s presence has calmed the chaotic waters at Arsenal, adding poise and command to a ship that was starting to sink rapidly. Still, those indelible Champions League nights at Atlético Madrid suggest that the best of Thomas Partey is yet to arrive at the Emirates, as his remarkable journey from humble beginnings to the top of European football continues to grow.
By: Toby Rathborne
Featured Image: @GabFoligno / Michael Regan – Getty Images