On the face of it, Chelsea have made smart buys this transfer window and look set to make more with the expected addition of Kai Havertz from Bayer Leverkusen likely to go through in the coming days.
Despite having the third-best attack in the Premier League last season with 69 goals scored, as well as being the third side behind Manchester City and Liverpool to create the highest volume of big chances, Frank Lampard’s added another playmaker in Hakim Ziyech and a prolific goalscorer in Timo Werner.
Indeed, both moves have their merits. Even though the raw statistics suggest the West London side didn’t necessarily need to prioritise their attacking options this summer, they sometimes looked short of ideas in the final third and suffered a bit when Tammy Abraham declined in the second part of 19/20.
Statistics provided by Understat also shows that the Blues underperformed their Expected Goals by 7.23, only four sides beat this in the entire division. In short, had the five-time Prem winners converted more really promising chances, they’d have rivalled the eventual tally of champions Liverpool.
The other major concern for Lampard was at the back, and signings of primary left-back target Ben Chilwell has been completed, as has Thiago Silva at centre-back who, despite his advanced years, they hope would significantly improve a team that allowed 54 goals last season.
While these signings are reasonable, an area that seems to be ignored is defensive midfield, where the Premier League giants lack a true holding midfielder.
The potential arrival of Havertz from Leverkusen, despite being considered a generational talent, only adds to positions that already look filled, while the club don’t have an all-rounder that can play at the base of their midfield.
Thus, it has been surprising that Chelsea haven’t considered Atletico Madrid’s Thomas Partey as the perfect anchorman for a side that currently looks attack-heavy. While many observers will balk at this suggestion given the presence of the much-maligned Jorginho and World Cup winner N’Golo Kante, neither provide what the Blues necessarily require in that role.
The Brazil-born Italy international, despite his adeptness in recycling possession, lacks the defensive awareness required to dominate as a blue-collar midfielder in front of the defence.
His inability to be alive to danger is well-known and was badly exposed in a cameo vs Crystal Palace, where a last-ditch Kurt Zouma tackle prevented a Palace goal, while a weak challenge to stop Andrew Robertson vs Liverpool at Anfield was simply shocking.
Both instances highlighted the weaknesses of the regista without the ball, situations in which Kante thrives.
However, regardless of the campaign by many pundits to have the Frenchman deployed in front of the defence, his limitations in possession remains a weakness. To be fair, he did give decent-to-good performances in that position post-lockdown, with the team’s impressive showing against Manchester City particularly notable.
Still, Kante’s best football has come when partnered with a deeper midfielder or natural anchorman. This was the case with Danny Drinkwater at Leicester City in 2015/16 and alongside Nemanja Matic at Chelsea the following season.
There are also doubts about the 29-year-old playing a more measured role in midfield different to his natural tendency to hunt for the ball higher up the pitch. This was evident in the Blues’ 3-2 defeat by West Ham United in July where two-time Prem winner was caught high up the pitch in the build-up to the fast break that won the Hammers the game.
Interestingly, what Jorginho and Kante lack in their skill-set, Partey possesses in his repertoire.
Every indication in the last few months has pointed to a move to Arsenal but with the North London side unable to complete the transfer yet, it’s been surprising that other clubs haven’t made a move for the Ghana star.
Partey’s awareness and astute positioning see him put out fires before they prove destructive and he’s rarely one to come out second-best in a tussle, an area of concern for Jorginho since his move in 2018.
The former Napoli man won 45 percent of his duels in the league last season compared to the West African’s 64 percent in La Liga. Curiously, even Kante didn’t fare well here winning only 41 percent of total duels in the previous campaign.
An area of importance will be Partey’s strength in aerial duels. He won 71 percent of battles in the air last term, significantly better than Kante (37 percent) and Jorginho (26 percent), and a statistic that’ll impress Lampard given his voiced concerns about the side’s weaknesses in such tussles.
For all that strength in ground and aerial duels, the 27-year-old isn’t only a midfield destroyer but is an expert in recycling possession and progressing the ball upfield. The African played the highest volume of passes into the final third for Diego Simeone’s side last season and he ranked third for progressive passes, behind Kieran Trippier and Saul Niguez.
He’s fairly press-resistant and isn’t one to be caught in possession repeatedly. He was dispossessed 15 times in La Liga in 19/20, fairly superior to Jorginho (22), Kante (32) and Mateo Kovacic (27).
Also, Partey surprisingly completed the most dribbles in the Atletico side with 47 from 56 attempts, a success rate of 83.9 percent. This was better than Kovacic’s 76.6 percent, as well as Jorginho and Kante, whose percentage of dribbles completed read 70.8 and 60.9 respectively.
In an attempt to find the right balance in midfield last term, Lampard tried different combinations in the middle of the park but most didn’t provide stability for a sustained period owing to the deficiencies of the personnel available.
The team played its best football with Kovacic and Jorginho pairing in midfield but neither offered the protection of Kante. The introduction of the France ball-winner saw the side lose some panache in the middle of the park while a midfield anchorman in a three proved unsuitable due to the aforementioned strengths and weaknesses of Chelsea's midfielders.
Partey offers solutions in that he’s equally adept as a lone defensive midfielder or in a pairing, which provides Lampard with the chance to be flexible with his selection with someone of the Ghanaian’s profile in the team.
The Blues have made sensible transfers so far but adding a defensive foil for their fragile backline hasn’t been considered yet. With Partey, the London giants could instantly solve midfield issues that could threaten their push to close the gap on Liverpool and Man City...and ultimately challenge for the title again.