Thomas Partey returned to Arsenal training today, Thursday, January 25th, indicating that his long stay on the injured list is drawing to a close. The Ghanaian midfielder has made just five appearances for the Gunners this season, missing time early in the campaign with a groin injury and then needing an extended period on the shelf to recover from surgery to repair a thigh problem in October.
Given Partey’s extensive injury history since arriving in North London, you’d expect Mikel Arteta and the club to be particularly careful in managing his return. And even if they manage him carefully, does anybody have a shred of confidence that he’ll remain fit for the remainder of the season? How many matches before he “feels something” that turns out to require another extended spell on the sidelines?
For those of you who’d rather look at the glass half full, perhaps the thigh problem that was surgically repaired was the underlying cause of his various muscle injuries. When one thing isn’t right, it can lead to overcompensation elsewhere, which in turn leads to excessive strain and eventually injury.
Partey’s return, if he can stay healthy, should help the Gunners. Declan Rice, while a magnificent footballer who is improving on the ball with every match, is not the same progressive, penetrative passer that Partey is. Regardless of where you come down on Arsenal’s attacking struggles — whether it’s down to poor finishing and bad luck or indicative of a bigger, underlying problem — having Partey back in the fold should help.
If I’m remembering correctly, I recently saw a graphic that indicated that Bukayo Saka in particular and Gabriel Martinelli to a lesser extent were getting their touches further away from the opposing goal. While some of that might be a feature of Arsenal’s control-focused style, some of it is likely due to the side missing Partey’s passing range. His ability to see and complete those more dangerous, vertical passes should lead to better attacking opportunities for Arsenal’s skilled wingers.
Mikel Arteta has a “problem” to solve, however. He has to figure out where to play Thomas Partey. At the start of the season, partly due to injuries, Partey played right back. That didn’t really work. Very recently, we’ve seen the Gunners line up with Jorginho alongside Declan Rice as more of a double pivot. Perhaps Partey slides into that role. Partey can also play as a single pivot with Rice pushed into the left 8 spot, shifting Kai Havertz to the bench.
Who Arteta selects and how he deploys them going forward will likely depend on the opponent (and fitness, as always). Last season, Arsenal had a clearly defined, preferred XI. By the end of the season, playing the same players with the same tactics fell short. Guys got hurt and the Gunners were “found out” to an extent. The ability to give different looks and rotate players is important and will hopefully help Arsenal avoid stalling out down the stretch.
Arsenal have an important four months coming up. They’re on the edges of a title challenge. They’re live in the Champions League. Thomas Partey’s return, again if he can stay fit, will help the club on both fronts.
It’s an important stretch for Partey too, and by extension, the club. The Ghanaian is out of contract after next season and atop the list of potential sale candidates at the club this summer for a variety of reasons — age, wages, resale value, and off-field issues. A strong, healthy showing boosts his value and makes him a more attractive target for other clubs.
It could also earn him a contract extension in North London. Personally, I’d prefer the club move on from him, but given the needs elsewhere on the roster (striker), it’s possible Edu and Arteta might view trying to squeeze a few more seasons out of Partey as the best option from a squad-building perspective. At some point, they will bring in a younger player for that roster spot, but their preferred target might not be available / attainable this summer.
In that hypothetical world, Partey has to be open to staying as well. A 30-year old midfielder with an injury history is undoubtedly more interested in a final, big payday rather than a shorter-term bridge deal.
Occam’s Razor says Thomas Partey isn’t long for an Arsenal jersey beyond this year. But a healthy Thomas Partey can certainly help the club down the stretch this season.