Thomas Partey has finally hit the kind of form and fitness that Arsenal had been looking for when they identified him as a player who could form part of a new core at the club. David Price/Arsenal FC via Getty Images
Arsenal’s £140 million summer transfer spree was a huge show of faith in manager Mikel Arteta’s judgment, but it was also part of a gamble that began much earlier. This latest recruitment drive was the consequence of a promise by Kroenke Sports Enterprises to invest; it was their response to fan protests arising from the club’s involvement in the failed European Super League project, which stoked longstanding resentment at their presiding over a gradual, but sustained, decline in the club’s Premier League status. The Kroenkes have not been quite as parsimonious as some would argue.
Although the team would undoubtedly have benefitted from a bigger budget, one of the key issues has been a mixed return from the money they have spent, most obviously the £72m club-record outlay on Nicolas Pepe in 2019.
Then-manager Unai Emery has subsequently claimed he preferred to sign Crystal Palace’s Wilfried Zaha, but various circumstances — including Lille’s willingness to accept the fee in instalments — led to the pursuit of Pepe instead. And so when Arteta approached the Kroenkes directly to find the £45m required to sign Thomas Partey from Atletico Madrid just a year later, they had a huge decision to make.
It was a simple deal given that Partey had a release clause, but Atletico required the entire sum to be paid up front. Sources claim Arsenal had been tracking Partey for several years, with former scout Francis Cagigao first identifying the midfielder in 2014 during a loan spell at another LaLiga side, Almeria. Although a possible transfer was briefly discussed in 2019, Emery believed priorities lay elsewhere in rebuilding the team, but this time, Arteta was adamant Partey would be the key component of his midfield, an area of the pitch where Arsenal have been habitually weak.
Despite knowing the buy-out clause could be triggered at any point, the Gunners only did so on the morning of deadline day after the Kroenkes accepted the recommendation from Arteta, in conjunction with technical director Edu.
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Injuries restricted Partey’s impact during his first season, and fears the 2021-22 campaign would follow a similar frustrating path grew in August when he missed Arsenal’s first three matches with an ankle problem. All three ended in defeat. Since his return, the Gunners have won four, drawn one and kept four clean sheets in the process across all competitions.
These remain formative days in Arteta’s rebuild, but Partey’s contribution will be arguably the most pivotal factor in determining its success.
There is a quiet determination about Partey that Arteta hopes will become the embodiment of the “new Arsenal.” Sources have told ESPN he had initial difficulty settling in London after moving from Madrid, and a stop-start season on the pitch made his transition more complicated. He suffered a thigh injury in November, a hip injury in December and January and a hamstring problem in February. Sources tell ESPN that Partey responded to each injury setback by resolving to undertake additional gym work on top of his regular training program.
Partey has focused on leg work in particular, with an emphasis on strengthening his muscles to avoid repeat injuries, and considers the ankle problem he suffered in preseason merely bad luck given it came following an over-zealous tackle by Ruben Loftus-Cheek in a friendly against Chelsea. However, sources claim the midfielder has also modified his diet. Although he’s not vegan, Partey has committed to reducing the occasional junk food he allows himself.
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Although Partey enjoys entertaining his 159.9k followers on TikTok, unlike many of his teammates, he’s not a gamer, but more interested in reading books and playing card games. Sources also claim he’s become particularly close with Eddie Nketiah, Gabriel Martinelli and Martin Odegaard.
Partey was born in the Ghana in the town of Odumase Krobo and shared heritage is at the heart of his relationship with Nketiah, who was born in London to Ghanaian parents. Martinelli and Partey are often seen sharing jokes together, with sources saying they hit it off almost immediately due to a similar sense of humour.
Partey admires Odegaard’s style of football, but more significantly, the pair have helped each other adjust to life in England. Both came from Madrid — Odegaard was on loan from Real Madrid last season before eventually joining on a permanent deal worth up to £34m this summer — and the pair have discussed the differences between Spanish and English football at length. Neither have had much chance to explore London, but the relaxation of COVID-19 rules provides a little more leeway in that regard and sources claim Partey is keen to learn more about the city.
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As ever, the football comes first. Partey completed 90 minutes in the Premier League just 10 times last season, denying Arteta the chance to fully integrate his midfield dynamo.
Partey offers the physical presence in midfield the Gunners have lacked for years, and he was given his nickname “The Octopus” at Almeria “because I stole a lot of balls.” But his range of passing and ability to drive forward with the ball gives him the potential to be a complete midfielder. During the October international break, Partey was switched mid-game to a more attacking role against Zimbabwe in Saturday’s World Cup qualifier and promptly won the ball high up the pitch, before firing in a low right-footed effort just inside the box for his 12th goal in 33 caps to turn the game in Ghana’s favour.
His 13th goal came in the reverse fixture three days later, sporting the captain’s armband while Andre Ayew was named among the substitutes, with a powerful free kick that helped earn Ghana a second successive victory, keeping them a point behind South Africa in their World Cup qualifying group with two games remaining.
Granit Xhaka’s importance to Arteta remains high and the pair are clearly Arteta’s first-choice pairing in a 4-2-3-1 shape, but there’s long been a suspicion that the Arsenal manager eventually wants to switch to 4-3-3, particularly to combat a lack of creativity in previous matches against defensive-minded teams.
Partey’s positioning in the 1-0 win at Burnley on Sept. 18 therefore felt significant. Deployed as the sole defensive midfielder in a 4-3-3 shape with Xhaka suspended, Partey balanced his defensive duties, including dropping into the back line to help deal with Burnley’s aerial threat, while also enabling Arteta to squeeze Emile Smith Rowe, Odegaard, Bukayo Saka, Pepe and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang into his starting line-up.
Other players have made an impact — Aaron Ramsdale replacing Bernd Leno in goal, Takehiro Tomiyasu’s encouraging start at right-back and Gabriel’s return from injury — but it’s no coincidence that Partey’s comeback has seen a distinct improvement in both performances and results. Next Monday’s clash between Arsenal and Crystal Palace will give Partey a chance to prove he can become the midfield presence the Gunners have lacked since Patrick Vieira, the man who will be in the opposition dugout.
“No Thomas, no Partey,” he said on his arrival at Arsenal, a sentiment on which Arteta has staked a considerable amount of his reputation. “He is really important because he is the anchor,” Arteta said last month. “He is the one who has to read what is happening and has to make the rest better.”