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Where’s the next Partey, man? Part 1

If Atlético Madrid sell Thomas Partey, Diego Simeone needs a high-level replacement. Let’s use the data to see who that might look like.

Club Atletico de Madrid v RCD Mallorca - La Liga Photo by Denis Doyle/Getty Images

There’s only one Thomas Partey. Literally, there’s only one Thomas Partey, but also in the way fans sing it to their cult heroes to make them feel special.

The Ghanaian has emerged as a key part of Diego Simeone’s team after years with the club that included loan spells at Mallorca and Almería. After Atlético Madrid sold Rodri to Manchester City, reports emerged that Simeone breathed a sigh of relief that it was the Spanish midfielder the Premier League came in search of and not Partey. Cholo had plans for Partey.

“I have a kid who can play in two positions.”

In those 10 words, an Africa-based scout named Ernest recommended Partey to JJ Sports, the agency which went on to represent him. Ernest was actually underselling the player, given Thomas has played as a centre-back, right-back, central midfielder and in a more advanced role under Simeone.

Juvenil B Atlético manager Javier Baños saw Thomas in his first trial game for the club, and immediately knew what he had spotted.

“This kid isn’t leaving here.”

At 23, it looked like Thomas might not make the grade at Atlético. Simeone persisted and insisted that the Ghanaian was good enough, but he needed to make tweaks to his game in order to become a reliable starter.

Thomas’ versatility has been a key factor in his increased game time as Simeone tries to shift away from a purely defensive approach. In fact, Atlético’s evolution can be seen through the player’s growing role.

Partey is a unique holding midfielder, and I explained as much here, too. He is an aggressive passer, athletic and mobile like a box-to-box midfielder. He doesn’t have the defensive instincts you would typically associate with a Simeone pivot, but those have been sharpened over the months and years in the team.

This season has seen Thomas take a step backwards in attack. His adventurous side has been curtailed, while his dribbles and touches in the attacking third and penalty area are down. His short passing rate has increased per 90 minutes and he is becoming more of a traditional holding midfielder, but that adventurous side is still there.

It was only a matter of time before big European clubs circled. The 27-year-old’s release clause is €50 million and Arsenal remain linked. Atlético want to double that with a contract extension but as of now, everything is still in play. And the club needs to act accordingly.

Finding a Thomas Partey replacement — the method

So what would happen if Arsenal do end up landing the Ghanaian? Atlético would have to find a replacement, preferably cheap and with LaLiga experience.

The method I have used to find a Partey substitute is by K-Means Clustering. I used FC Python’s incredible clustering tutorial and inserted my own stats via FBRef and Statsbomb. Clustering analysis is basically finding a range of similarities between a list of players and putting them into little clusters, as it were. I created five groups based on the following metrics:

Short, medium, long pass ratio, important passes, progressive passing distance

I took the number of total passes and divided it by the number of completed short passes. And I did the same for medium and long passes to find the ratio. I also added up key passes, final third passes and passes into the penalty area, and divided that by completed passes to see how often a player makes important passes. I also divided progressive distance by completed passes to get a feel for how often a player passes forward and into dangerous areas of the field.

I found a number of players who in Thomas’ cluster that I never even thought about, and the players closest to him in some key areas are young and possibly could be developed into the next midfield superstar under Simeone.

A few players of note that jump off the page after comparing passing styles are Yangel Herrera, Oghenekaro Etebo and Gonzalo Escalante. I will keep an eye on these players and mention them again in part two of this short series.

Thomas has been most closely compared to Michael Essien as he rose to prominence in the middle of Atlético’s midfield. When I think of Essien, all I can see if the bending strike he scored against Arsenal that still defies belief whenever I see it. Thomas has been fond of a hit like that in the past himself. They are similar, of course, in that they are both Ghanaian and play in central midfield roles — but where Essien used brute force, Thomas uses his rangy frame to defend.

Thomas is unique, and there’s little doubt about that. At 27, he still has room to improve and might do with a coach that encourages his adventurous side, or with a more defensive midfielder next to him. Atlético would have a difficult task in replacing him if he does leave, but in this article, we have at least identified a few players who might fit the role.

In Part 2 of this series, I will look at defensive similarities between some of the players in the cluster and run another analysis to see if the same names pop up or if we unearth anyone else similar to Partey. In Part 3, I will take a look at some of the players whose profiles are most similar to the player, whether Atlético would purchase one and what they might add to Simeone’s side.