As Thomas Partey trudged off the pitch at Old Trafford in early December 2021, most Arsenal fans would be lying if they said they hadn’t been expecting more.
The Ghanaian’s dramatic deadline arrival and subsequent masterclass at that very same venue in 2020 had sent imaginations into overdrive. After years outside the Champions League, suddenly the pathway back to the top seemed clear for the Gunners and Partey was the man to bring it to them.
Sadly though it wasn’t to be. Injuries and poor form meant that Partey’s first season in North London was something of a damp squib, and a failure to improve things in the early part of this campaign meant that by his own admission his first 14 months at the Emirates could only be rated as “a four out of 10”.
Just over three months down the line though, the 28-year-old is a totally different player. Sunday’s win over Leicester probably ranked top of his ever growing list of recent masterclasses in a Gunners shirt, with a rare goal meaning that the beaming smile that instantly endeared him to Arsenal fans back in October of 2020 was fully back on display. So what has changed?
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Well an obvious place to start would appear to be the role he plays in Mikel Arteta’s system. That early breakneck, box-to-box bonanza against United had led many to term Partey the second coming of Patrick Vieira. As a result he was quickly placed into double pivot alongside the deeper lying Granit Xhaka and asked to largely prowl the right side of the pitch as his domain.
This season though things have changed. Since December Partey has been tasked with operating at the base of Arsenal’s midfield as a ‘number six’. This role is important two-fold. As the Gunners look to be come a team that spend more time in the opposition half his provision of defensive cover is vital in enabling them to do so.
As far as Arteta is concerned though his more important responsibility is to be a consistent passing option as Arsenal look to build from the back. His Houdini-like ability to escape the high press in this dangerously exposed role means that comparisons to Santi Cazorla are now perhaps more apt than the early likening to Vieira.
Tactical changes are well and good though, but it is impossible to play this role without a huge amount of self-belief. Partey is essentially being asked to be the complete midfielder without whom Arsenal cannot function, so how can a man whose confidence was so low as to rate himself a 4/10 be so capable of fulfilling the task.
A continued run of starts has played a key part. In that loss to United earlier this season, Partey did not look to be a player who trusted his body to do what he wanted. After the longest injury layoff of his career you could hardly blame him. Now though the Ghanaian has only missed one game in the past four months and this was down to a suspension rather than injury.
That is no coincidence. Sources close to the player have revealed to football.london that during his time on the sidelines last season the former Atletico Madrid man did extra work on his muscles to help him adapt to increased physicality of the English game. It appears to be paying off.
As well as being confident in his body though, Partey is also crucially confident in his mind. What has often been overlooked in evaluating recent big money transfers is the difficulty of adapting to a new country in the midst of a pandemic. When Partey arrived in North London, the UK was almost immediately plunged back into lockdown, meaning that by his own admission he hardly saw any of his new home for his first few months there.
“I’m trying to adapt,” the Ghanaian said when asked how he had find his early time in England ahead of Arsenal’s Europa League clash with Olympiacos in March last year. “It’s not been easy I have to learn so many things I have to know so many places that I can do my stuff and visit with my family. But with (COVID) situation we have to adjust a little bit and wait and we hope everything becomes okay so I can be able to know more places.”
During this time the pressures of being such an expensive high-profile signing weighed heavy, and by Arteta’s own admission Partey was desperate to justify the amount of money Arsenal had spent on him. “He knows how much he cost and that adds a bit of pressure,” the Spaniard said.
“When you are not able to play you want to hurry up and do everything quicker, and show everybody how good you are and have a big impact on the team. That creates some anxiety for sure. Then the physical aspect, when you look at the outputs he needs to put in when he was playing in Spain or now, are pretty different.”
Those close to the player have revealed to football.london that he now feels far more at home in London having been able to settle with his family and spend more time with friends from Africa in the capital city not that restrictions over player bubbles are far less strict.
All this has led to a perfect storm that has left Arsenal with arguably the best deep lying midfielder in the Premier League right now. Liverpool’s high pressing tactics mean that Wednesday night will probably provide the biggest test yet for Partey’s recent run of form, but with confidence in his life outside football now clearly impacting him on the pitch, the Ghanaian will better equipped than ever to hopefully pass it.