Flipping through the album of his performances in a Ghana shirt, six years on from his debut, Thomas Partey would struggle to find that performance which fully – all-boxes-ticked fully – captures the calibre of player he has become.
From the outset, Partey was marked as the guy to carry the Black Stars someday, after it became very evident very quickly that he had both the ability and the temperament for the role. There was no vacancy at the time Partey passed his audition, back when he was on the books of Atletico Madrid, but that didn’t stop the young man from making an impression.
The likes of Asamoah Gyan and Andre Ayew were still firmly installed as the Black Stars’ leading men, though, so Partey had to wait his turn. As the team grew younger, while his own profile got boosted by a big-money move to Arsenal and an appointment as Ghana vice-captain in late 2020, room for Partey to widen his sphere of influence also increased.
That elevation in status was soon followed, however, by a plunge to a long stretch of nightmarish depths. Partey battled injuries like never before in his career, missing one game too many for club and country, and seemingly unable to catch a break.
But he has rediscovered his best self now, in terms of both fitness and form, and Arsenal are so much better for it. As much with his talent as with his sheer presence, Partey is providing just the sort of leadership that Arsenal boss Mikel Arteta expected of a signing of such quality and cost.
Deservedly, the Ghanaian was named the club’s Player of the Month for February, a feat that’s especially impressive considering just how many players have stepped up for Arsenal in recent months.
If Martin Odegaard is the conductor of Arsenal’s attacking moves, directing the scoring boots of Bukayo Saka, Gabriel Martinelli and Emil Smith Rowe, Partey is the battery powering the push for that UEFA Champions League ticket which is starting to come more sharply into focus now than at any other point in the season.
On the international scene, Partey is involved in the pursuit of another ticket – one that guarantees a place at the upcoming FIFA World Cup – to which his attention and energies now turn. Over the next few days, Partey will be obliged to lead Ghana’s charge for a return to the world stage – a stage he is himself yet to grace – for the first time since Brazil 2014.
The Black Stars would have to do it the hardest way possible, against archrivals Nigeria, in what is expected to be a fiercely contested two-legged tie. Inspiration would be needed, but it wouldn’t come from the sort-of-retired Gyan or current skipper Ayew.
The latter is sidelined by suspension carried over from the recent Africa Cup of Nations (AFCON), where Ghana crashed out in unprecedented fashion. In the aftermath of that tournament, Partey was heavily criticised for not quite showing up – rightly so, I believe – despite providing a pair of assists.
Hurriedly, he returned to Arsenal, in search of some form of respite – if not, well, redemption – but walked right into another mess, this time of a largely personal kind, just 48 hours later.
Sure, the Gunners’ elimination from the Carabao Cup at the hands of Liverpool that Thursday evening did hurt but, at least in Partey’s own notes, it probably was a minor tragedy compared to the red card he picked up – the aggregate of a quick succession of yellows – as a second-half substitute.
Partey’s mind would not have been the best place to be that week, following that double whammy, but he has recovered to become one of Arsenal’s best players as the season hits the home straight, even chipping in with a goal (possibly a hat-trick, had he not had a second goal-bound attempt hit the woodwork and a third cleared off the line) in a 2-0 victory over Leicester.
Ghana would need some of that, when Partey laces up for his first-ever games against the old enemy on March 25 and 29. The roster named features many players who aren’t nearly as experienced at this level as Partey — a veteran of over 30 senior games — most of whom would turn to him for ignition.
This, really, is a chance for Partey to deliver that performance we haven’t seen yet which, doubtlessly, he has in his locker. He has served some decent outings for Ghana, even a couple of match-winning displays — just nothing that leaves you holding your plate out, on your knees, begging for more.
He might want to look to Michael Essien, the other great Ghanaian midfielder who lit up London in his heyday, for a template. The last time Ghana played Nigeria on home soil, a feisty quarter-final clash at AFCON 2008, Essien owned the occasion and delivered arguably the performance that frames his legacy as a Ghana international.
Partey is certainly in the mood to produce something just as spectacular, but he’d need to find his groove against a team that would test the full range of his powers. Should Thomas of Arsenal and Partey of Ghana – not always the same player – merge and operate in sync, Nigeria should have their hands full.
This could be the game that defines his international career, for better or for worse, and he knows it. It’s Partey’s chance to make a difference when it really matters; his chance to, at last, be the life of the Black Stars’ party.