The Ghana international was imperious in the middle of the park, and his performance ought to force Arsenal’s hand this summer
There was something cocksure, even to the point of arrogance, about Andrew Robertson’s statement after the first leg. “They celebrated like they won the tie after the game, so let’s see,” he said. “They’re coming back to Anfield; we know our fans will be there.”
The idea of Anfield as a living thing, a heaving, breathing dragon perched on the banks of the Mersey, waiting to test the mettle of Diego Simeone’s side and find them wanting, was evidently real enough to make Robertson confident leaving the Metropolitano three weeks ago.
Atletico, however, came ready for the examination on Wednesday night, armed with an impenetrable shield (in goalkeeper Jan Oblak) and a composure that refused to wilt under the pressure, a calmness – embodied by midfielder Thomas Partey – that meant Los Colchoneros kept their heads where, less than 12 months ago, such seasoned campaigners as Sergio Busquets and Gerard Pique had lost theirs.
For all his talk before the second leg – he described playing at Anfield as “a dream” – there was nothing less than total awareness from Partey on the night, and in a stunning rearguard action that was tinged with more than a little luck, the Ghana international stood out for his economy of touch and movement.
The aim, evidently, was to slow the play down; again and again, cries from Simeone implored his players to take their time and, by extension, the sting out of the game.
When the opportunities, few and far between, came for the visitors to string together some possession, it ultimately fell to Partey smack in the centre of the pitch, swarmed by the Reds’ famed press, to look after the ball and not lose it in dangerous areas.
His calmness in the face of incessant pressure was tremendous. Keeping the ball always close with little caresses, he completed the most dribbles on the night for Atletico, while having the third most touches of the ball and completing the third-highest tally of passes (30, with the second-highest accuracy).
Turning away from pressure, encouraging interplay with measured retention: it sounds simple enough, but in practice it is a daunting brief fraught with danger for a midfielder facing this Liverpool team.
Without possession, as they had to be, Partey was similarly excellent. Five tackles (the best tally on either side in the game) and four interceptions (second-most behind Saul Niguez) encapsulates all he did well, both breaking up play and nipping in to halt Liverpool’s swelling momentum where possible.
It could not have gone any better if he had dreamt it, and for all that the hosts had enough chances to have won the game thrice over, certainly Simeone’s conception of the game played out, to a significant degree, thanks to the diligence of his Ghanaian bulwark.
This Atletico may not be the vintage version of 2014 to 2016, shorn as it is of the likes of Diego Godin, Juanfran and Gabi. However, even the latter, longstanding captain and leader that he was, would have been proud of what Thomas, ostensibly his replacement in the side, was able to do; how he was able to embody the ethos of the side and lead by example in an arena of myth.
It was a performance to send a message to the rest of Europe – this Atletico side, on its day, is still difficult to beat.
It also, more sensationally, sent a message to London club Arsenal, to whom Partey has been linked in recent weeks – if they had any doubts whatsoever about his adaptability to the tempo of English football, his showing at Anfield, a ground where the Gunners have not won in eight years, certainly dispels them.
It has been reported in the Spanish press that Mikel Arteta’s side are willing to meet his £42million release clause this summer.
However, if ongoing contract renewal talks between the player and Atletico weren’t enough of an incentive for the Gunners to move quickly, this coming-out performance in front of all of Europe is one that should force Arsenal’s hand even more.