Atletico Madrid’s bid to beat Levante and go top of the La Liga table for the first time this season looked in trouble with time running out on Saturday evening at the Estadio Vicente Calderon.
Atletico had dominated possession against the bottom side, but were still scoreless even after 14 different attempts on goal, 13 corners taken, and the woodwork denying them on three separate occasions.
With the Calderon getting increasingly nervous, coach Diego Simeone made his final substitution on 73 minutes. Simeone removed centre-forward Jackson Martinez and sent on midfielder Thomas Partey - leaving the more obvious replacement Fernando Torres sat on the bench.
That move seemed strange at the time, but just seven minutes later Thomas drove forward into the opposition penalty area, held off two challenges and got off a shot which Levante goalkeeper Diego Marino got a hand to but could not keep out. The game finished 1-0, and Atletico took advantage of Barcelona’s earlier 0-0 draw at Espanyol to leap to the top of the Primera Division standings.
This followed the young Ghanaian having come off the bench the previous Wednesday at Rayo Vallecano to set up an 88th minute opening goal for fellow youngster Angel Correa. For the second time in four days, the previously unheralded Thomas, who has yet to start even one La Liga game for Diego Simeone’s side, had delivered a crucial intervention.
“This is the dream of any player,” Thomas told AS after Saturday’s game. “But in the end work pays off. It is not up to the coach, it is up to you yourself to achieve what you want.”
Work there has been.
The oldest of eight children, Thomas played for his father’s team as a kid, but did not take usual route of talented youngsters in moving to Europe in early teens. Instead he moved up through a number of Ghanaian sides before eventually playing senior second division football in his home country.
Aged 17, he joined Atletico’s youth ranks and in his first season moved from Juvenil B through Juvenil A to the Atletico B team, playing in Spain’s third tier. Next came full seasons on loan at Real Mallorca in 2013/14 and Almeria last term. Although both clubs were relegated he was a regular starter both years, and returned to the Calderon last summer having already played 68 top flight games and scored nine goals.
Atletico’s policy of loaning out younger players works pretty well - midfielder Saul Niguez came on hugely during the 2013/14 season at Rayo Vallecano, while playmaker Oliver Torres matured during his 2014/15 campaign at Porto. Similar progression can be seen in Borja Baston, who got 23 Segunda goals on loan at Real Zaragoza last term, and is already on nine Primera Division goals for Eibar this season.
This stockpiling of players however means that it is difficult for those kids to come back and then get a place in Simeone’s first XI. Oliver began the season as a starter but has had less playing time recently. Saul is only now getting regular starts following a serious injury to Tiago Mendes. Thomas did not see even one minute of action at all through the first four months of the current season.
Thomas’ Atletico debut actually came against Espanyol in late November, in the game in which Tiago broke a bone in his leg. Some observers, possibly due to his imposing physique, have earmarked the 22-year-old as a replacement for the Portuguese as a defensive, holding player.
But he generally played in a more attacking role at Mallorca and Almeria, driving forward from midfield - bringing some comparisons with Manchester City's Ivory Coast superstar Yaya Toure.
This is going a bit far, but his huge contributions to Atletico’s last two victories have shown he can make a big impact on games. He also scored in his only start this season - the last 32 Copa del Rey second leg game against third tier Reus.
The situation is also further complicated by the club signing two other midfielders already this January. Experienced Argentina international Augusto Fernandez has arrived from Celta Vigo for €6.5 million, and the 29-year-old looks more likely to take up Tiago’s ‘game management’ position. Younger albiceleste starlet Matias Kranevitter, in some quarters seen as a new Javier Mascherano, has also arrived at the Calderon after winning the Copa Libertadores with Buenos Aires club River Plate last autumn.
So Simeone has plenty of options in the centre. Augusto and Kranevitter are both set to make their Atletico debuts in Wednesday’s Copa del Rey last 16 first leg against Rayo, with Thomas also likely to feature as the most attacking of a three man midfield. Club captain Gabi is set to get a rest, while Saul and Oliver will probably be on the bench.
Given all this competition for places it had seemed that Thomas would go out on loan again this month. Ironically enough Saturday’s opponents Levante had been trying to get him, as had Rayo, while Getafe were also reportedly in talks with Atletico about a move.
The sudden leap into the limelight might see interest coming from more high-profile clubs. Thomas’ current deal at Atletico runs until 2019, and reportedly contains a €6 million release clause which Premier League suitors would be unlikely to put off by.
Asked about his future on Saturday, Thomas remains as on-message as all of Simeone’s players tend to be.
“I'm not thinking about that now,” he said. “I just want to play for Atletico. I'm happy here. I never lost faith. I know I can get more minutes at Atletico. The most important thing is for the team to win, so we can go as far as possible in all the competitions we are playing.”
For some Thomas might appear to have arrived as an overnight sensation, but he has his sights set a lot further already.
Read more from Dermot Corrigan