Timely return of Thomas Partey boosts Arsenal’s European hopes

    For a team embroiled in an identity crisis for much of 2020, Arsenal have enjoyed quite the start to the new year.

    Their 3-0 victory over Newcastle was their sixth win in seven in all competitions, but for all they went in on an impressive run of form, there was something extra to their performance that suggested things are only going to get better.

    And when I say something extra, I of course mean Thomas Partey.

    The Ghanaian was back in the starting lineup for the first time since December’s dreary defeat to Tottenham, and even though he was tentative and leggy as he returns to fitness, he drove absolutely everything for Mikel Arteta’s team.

    His involvement in their first goal was majestic. Taking the ball from Bernd Leno in a fairly innocuous position, he turned on the burners to advance into a yard of space, and found Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang with a spectacular long-range pass.

    It was the sort of service the captain has lacked all season and his eyes lit up as he brought the ball down. He did the rest, of course, taking it past Emil Krafth and hammering the ball into the roof of the net.

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    He kept things simple where he had to, but even his sideways passing had conviction. The Gunners’ second arrived when he took the ball inside his own half and quickly moved it onto Emile Smith Rowe, who drove forward and found Bukayo Saka in the area. It was the sort of fluid, purposeful attack Arsenal seemed unable to string together earlier in the season, yet with Partey back in the side, it was a feature of their play.

    It was a game Arsenal dominated, creating 18 chances to their opponents’ 4, and they didn’t spend much time without the ball. They didn’t spend much time without the ball because Partey, alongside his partner in crime in Granit Xhaka, didn’t allow Newcastle a second to breathe, constantly harrying and recycling the ball to make things happen.

    It was the kind of game that might have got the better of Arsenal previously. Even as recently as Thursday’s 0-0 draw with Crystal Palace, they had problems breaking against a team who defended from the edge of their own third.

    Yet with Partey’s speed of thought and precision of execution, they look something close to the finished article, capable of controlling possession but also turning defence into attack at the flip of a coin.

    After a woeful start to the season, you could be forgiven for ruling Arsenal out of European contention as early as November.

    Yet they’re now just two points from Chelsea in seventh, and with Partey’s staggered emergence coming at a time when they are already firing on all cylinders, the future is starting to look bright.

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