With two wins from their final two Premier League games of 2020, Arsenal have signed off on a bittersweet year that saw them win a couple of trophies but fail to qualify for the Uefa Champions League.
But, of course, those results meant much more: namely, the end of a startling streak of successive domestic games without victory. Five losses from that eight-game-high pile of misery saw the reigning FA Cup kings plunge to the nether regions of the league table, and one more got them knocked out of the Carabao Cup by Manchester City.
Still, Arsenal — now only up to 13th on the table and not yet rid of the ‘relegation rivals’ label slapped on them by West Bromwich Albion boss Sam Allardyce — aren’t out of the woods.
Manager Mikel Arteta’s immediate task would be to sustain these hard-fought, long-sought gains — scraped from four days’ work of beating Chelsea and Brighton & Hove Albion – and ensure they’re worth much more than mere festive cheer.
With a view to reinforcing his side in areas where deficiencies exist, Arteta might have some names pencilled down for January shopping. But even before Arsenal hit the market — if they would — the club might have their most urgent signing already locked in: Thomas Partey, three — almost four — months a Gunner.
Partey joined Arsenal in early October, arriving with a price tag and a reputation that marked him as the man to plug a gaping, yawning hole in midfield. The truth, though, is that Arsenal have barely unwrapped the full package of gifts for which they paid Atletico Madrid a Ghanaian-record £45 million transfer fee.
On average, Arsenal have only managed to squeeze just about an hour of football out of Partey per game, but his obvious quality has still shone through. His debut, a late-game cameo at the Etihad Stadium, might have gone under the radar, but Partey’s next visit to Manchester, across the city at Old Trafford a fortnight later, remains his most memorable performance yet.
Partey, on that occasion, was as majestic a presence in midfield as his new team had fantasized he’d be. Arsenal won 1-0, and not even Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, scorer of the game’s only goal, received as much praise.
Then came the setbacks nobody foresaw. In each of Arsenal’s next two games — a month apart — Partey only lasted the first half, picking up thigh problems that have seen him sidelined. The last sight of Partey trying to get anything done in an Arsenal shirt was on the brink of half-time during the North London Derby fixture earlier this month.
On his manager’s orders, Partey retraced his steps gingerly back to post, in a half-hearted, almost one-legged attempt to stop Jose Mourinho’s Tottenham Hotspur from breaking away to score an inevitable, result-clinching second goal.
He’s been out ever since, but Partey hasn’t missed much, with Arsenal’s struggles this season only worsening. Now, though, they seem back on track, generating some good momentum that Arteta would look to carry into the new year.
But, while Arsenal may have gotten a little tighter in defence, and maybe a little sharper upfront, there remains a pressing need for structure and substance in the middle of the park — the reason why Partey was acquired in the first place, remember?