As film scripts go, you couldn’t really have written one much better than Thomas Partey’s first game in an Arsenal shirt at Old Trafford.
The Ghanaian had just arrived from Atletico Madrid as a £45 million deadline day signing and put in a five star performance that had pundits queuing around the block to shower him with praise.
“Brilliant. I thought he was outstanding,” offered up the usually acerbic Roy Keane. “When you watch a player live, that is when you can judge a player. And the more I look at him, the more I wish he was in Manchester United’s midfield.”
As the follow up rolled around on Thursday three thousand Gunners fans travelled North hopeful that their star midfielder could break the age-old pattern of sequels being worse than the original. Unfortunately for them that was not to be the case.
The Ghanaian was loose in possession, unambitious with his passing and vastly culpable for Arsenal’s territorial retreat after Emile Smith Rowe’s opening goal.
Were this a one off we could consign it to the history books as a bad day at the office for the Gunners’ best midfielder, but a trend is now emerging where it’s harder to count the games Partey has played well in this season, than the ones in which he hasn’t.
As one of the most experienced players in Mikel Arteta’s young squad the standards are simply higher for the 28-year-old, and if the poor performances continue then Arsenal have a real problem on their hands.
So what exactly is going wrong?
Well a place to start could be the personnel alongside him.
Last year Partey’s best performances generally came in partnership with Granit Xhaka, whose tendency to stay deeper on the pitch gave the Ghanaian license to exhibit some of the box-to-box abilities for which he was signed. The Swiss midfielder’s quality in possession also meant that Partey had more space in which to operate.
If you think back to games where the 28-year-old struggled last season, such as the Europa League semi final matches against Villarreal, it was when Xhaka was shifted out of his midfield position to left back, or not even involved in the side at all, leaving him to more or less man the midfield on his own.
This season the Swiss midfielder has been missing since the 3-1 victory over Tottenham in September with a knee injury and it could be argued that Partey’s performances have consequentially dropped since.
In recent games against Newcastle and Leicester, where he was partnered by Albert Sambi Lokonga, the Ghanaian’s average position on the pitch was the deeper of the two, suggesting that he is maybe sacrificing some of his overall game for the team.
It could be argued that this was why the more defensively-minded Mohamed Elneny was chosen for his first start of the season on Thursday at Old Trafford. In an ideal world his more defensive instincts would have enabled Partey to exhibit to box-to-box excellence we saw at the same stadium in November 2020.
However, the Egyptian’s limitations in midfield meant Manchester United were generally happy to let him have the ball. On the night the former Besiktas loan made (75) and received (62) more passes than any other player on the pitch. Contrast that to Partey who made and received just 47 passes each it’s clear to see that Michael Carrick’s side targetted the Ghanaian in a way they didn’t with his Egyptian teammate, meaning he struggled generally to exhibit his best play in possession.
It’s also worth noting the differing set ups that Arsenal have deployed this season.
In Partey’s first start back after an ankle injury that kept him out of the opening three games of the season, he was asked to anchor a midfield three as a loan pivot against Burnley.
While it worked well at Turf Moor, the formation was ditched for the games against Tottenham and Brighton before being resumed against Crystal Palace.
After it came unstuck in the 2-2 draw with the Eagles the ‘4-3-3’ has largely been ditched in favour of a ‘4-4-2’ or ‘4-2-3-1’, but it could be argued that the constant chopping and changing of midfield tactics have made it difficult for Partey to get a rhythm going.
However, this excuse can only go so far, and players of the 28-year-old’s undoubted quality should be able to cope with the tactical tweaks their manager makes.
A more plausible reason behind why his season has been so inconsistent though is probably his fitness.
The Ghanaian was outstanding for much of pre-season before being hacked down by Ruben Loftus-Cheek in a friendly at the Emirates. The ankle injury he sustained there saw him miss the first month of the season, and just as he was getting going again, a groin problem served to rule him out of the victory over Watford and subsequent international duty.
The stop-start nature of Partey’s season has pretty much been the story of his Arsenal career so far, as injury after injury has proved to make each recovery nothing more than a false dawn.
As well the toll that will undoubtedly be taking on his body, it’s worth considering the effect that is having on his mental state.
While it is impossible to know exactly what’s going on in his head, the 28-year-old looks to be a player who is slightly unsure of himself right now.
In possession he is generally more cautious, with just 13 of his 57 passes on Thursday night being forward ones. Contrast that to last season’s masterclass at Old Trafford where 40% of his passes went forwards and the drop off in confidence seems plain to see.
As Arsenal ceded control to Manchester United Partey could be seen chastising himself for failing to make simple passes to his teammates.
There was an instance in the first half where an easy to execute switch would have put Takehiro Tomiyasu through into the box, but the Ghanain instead mishit the ball straight into Fred’s path. As Ben White ultimately recovered the ball from Cristiano Ronaldo in the resulting counter attack, Partey could be seen jumping around in frustration at himself before holding up a hand of apology to his Japanese teammate.
Ebbs and flows of confidence are part of being a professional footballer though, and a player as experienced as Partey is all too aware of this.
The fact that he was willing to come out and do post-match media duties after such a poor performance at Old Trafford on Thursday was indicative of a man who knows he has more to give his team.
“For me, I have to keep on doing my best, keep trying, keep improving, try to come back to my best, because the team needs me,” he told Arsenal’s in-house media.
Sometimes it does take hitting rock bottom in terms of confidence to start building back up again, and you get the feeling from those words that Partey is keen to start putting his poor form behind. It will only be evident after the Everton games on Monday, but perhaps this could be a turning point for him.
As Arsenal look to secure a much-needed three points in their bid for Champions League football next season, Mikel Arteta will certainly be hoping that’s the case.