There is a sweet spot for any up-and-coming talent in a football team when the player in question is a mixture of both pliability and utility, eager to learn and sit on the bench but valuable enough to contribute when necessary. The length of that sweet spot can depend on lots of factors including ambition, advice and speed of development. Thomas Partey is nearly ready to leave that zone and Atlético Madrid need to handle the situation carefully or lose him — either to stunted progression or an offer neither he or they can turn down.
The key to a Diego Simeone side is the midfield. Defenders can plug in and play like they always do and some variation of Diego Costa and Antoine Griezmann will start up front. But the filing in the sandwich is always where you can decipher Simeone’s game plan. And if Thomas is in the squad, you can almost sense the game will be direct, less defensive and more flowing with plenty of the Ghanaian’s long arms and legs churning around the field to eat up space, recovering sloppy opposition passes and looking for ways through the defence unless there’s an option for a long-ranger.
Back in summer 2015, there were options for Thomas to leave Atlético after he returned following a good season on loan at Almería. But Simeone was convinced during the preseason that he could not allow that to happen. He started as a central defender during training that summer and slowly moved his way up the field, only occasionally peering back as he has slotted in at right-back on occasion when injuries forced Simeone to improvise. Since then, Thomas’ minutes have indeed increased with over 400 in LaLiga during 2015/16, followed by a meagre growth of over 600 in 2016/17 before those numbers took a quantum leap last season, when he played over 2,300. After 10 games this season, he is one goal shy of his highest goalscoring season (3, last season) and should come close to that number of minutes again. As his influence and importance grows, so does his understanding that he deserves more minutes.
As such, Simeone has some decisions to make.
There is an argument to be made that Koke never lived up to his billing as a young commander in Simeone’s title-winning side. But whisper it quietly when Simeone is around — the 26-year-old is an undisputed starter when he’s fit. So important to Cholo’s plans is Koke that he rarely rests when he needs it and his body is built to last, until it won’t be one day given all his hard running. But for now, Koke is one of the first names in the teamsheet along with Oblak and Griezmann.
And it’s Koke who confuses Thomas’ role. Saúl Ñiguez is a starter now for both Spain and Atlético, and despite sometimes being a square peg midfielder in a round hole midfield, he starts and everything else can be figured out later. Rodri is slowly earning the same credentials and he has become just as important to Cholo, which he was reminded of when he took the young Sergio Busquets facsimile off against Eibar in September — with the whistles from the fans still ringing in the Argentine’s ears from that decision.
So good are Atlético in central midfield that they have to send Saúl or Koke out to the right and left when Thomas plays, and that means one of Ángel Correa, Thomas Lemar or even someone else is sacrificed to accommodate them. For the most part, it’s Thomas who is left out though as Simeone prefers what Correa or Lemar can offer in attack rather than the possibility of losing something in defensive midfield with the 25-year-old’s inclusion. It’s conservative, but that’s Cholo.
Atlético’s two most rewarding victories this season saw Thomas start both. He only scores rockets — which we saw against Athletic Bilbao last weekend — and he gives Simeone something different from his other midfielders. Thomas has gained the coach’s trust by the game after he worked his way up the midfield ladder.
For now, he is a disputed starter. But for how long will Simeone see him that way, and more importantly, how long Partey accept such a role, is up for debate.