If a 50 million euro midfielder dominates Manchester United at Old Trafford and no fans are there to see it, did it really happen?
As Arsenal have toiled through much of the season without summer acquisition Thomas Partey, this is a question that seems increasingly relevant. After all, that statement performance against the Red Devils is one of only three 90s the Ghana international has gotten through since swapping Madrid for North London.
On that night, all of the hype and excitement that had trailed Arsenal’s deadline day swoop for Partey was borne out in a majestic showing on a ground where the Gunners had not won in the league for 14 years.
The 27-year-old was at the heart of an energetic approach that unsettled the hosts, especially in the game's opening half, creating a platform for Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang to decide the game in the second half.
At the time, it seemed very much an aperitif, something to whet the appetite for more.
Since then, however, Partey's Arsenal career has seemed to stand still; so much so, in fact, that his excellence at Old Trafford now seems almost illusory, especially with empty stands providing a gloomy, surreal backdrop. After all, his last appearance for the club came during defeat in the North London derby nine matches ago, and ended after only 45 minutes.
During his absence, enforced due to a niggling hip injury, the Gunners' slow start in the Premier League devolved into pure chaos.
Following that cathartic reverse against United on November 1, Mikel Arteta's side would not win another league match for close to seven weeks. In that run were defeats to Wolverhampton Wanderers, Burnley and Everton, as well as ignoble (and quite fortunate) draws against Leeds and Southampton.
That poor run of results brought discussion around Arsenal's lack of midfield creativity to the fore, and rightly so. However they were also characterized by a distinct lack of certainty in the middle of the park—there was no mix of available profiles that was perfectly satisfactory, and so Arteta has been forced to make do, the blanket never quite big enough for any kind of comfort.
Obviously, five appearances in the first half of the season is not what the club would have hoped for when they triggered Partey's release clause to extricate him from his contract at Atletico. Consider the fact that the opportunity cost of the already expensive signing was forgoing a creative midfielder, and his absence has been even more of a catastrophe.
As such, the Ghana international's return on Thursday for the meeting with Crystal Palace last week came as a significant boost to the Gunners' cause. Arsenal have been able to approach his rehabilitation with a caution that has not always been characteristic, in no small part thanks to a mini-resurgence that has lifted them out of the depths of the league table inside the last three weeks.
With Emile Smith Rowe now selected to play between the lines of midfield and attack, the Gunners appear to have course-corrected, and are now playing more fluidly through the thirds, as was evident against Newcastle United again on Monday evening.
Most importantly, they are winning matches – four on the bounce in all competitions before that nervy draw against the Eagles – and have found a system that works, a far cry from the chopping and changing from earlier in the campaign.
These are important factors that ensure that, when Partey does re-enter the starting lineup, it will be from a position of strength.
For all that injuries have robbed him of continuity and minutes since joining, the lack of a clear and workable tactical idea at the club always made it difficult to understand precisely what role Partey was signed to fill.
The Ghanaian played a strict screening role at Atletico, and was tasked with winning and progressing the ball. However, he also has the dynamism to play a more expansive role as an '8', and has occasionally been fielded as a number 10 while on international duty with the Black Stars.
Contrary to popular perception, the best way to maximize players with a smorgasbord of gifts is not to simply allow them roam free. Rather, it is beneficial to assign them specific tasks and responsibilities, albeit with a certain degree of license.
And so it is that perhaps the biggest beneficiary of Arsenal’s nascent stability will almost certainly be the player who has been absent through its conception. Within Arteta's 4-2-3-1, Partey would most obviously slot in alongside Granit Xhaka; the Swiss international offering the metronomic passing from deep, and the Black Star providing the athleticism and ball-carrying.
In many ways, after an admittedly exciting false start, Partey's Arsenal career is finally taking off.