Arsenal were hugely credited for their summer transfer window-topping expenditure, not least because they helped build – and in some cases reinforce – the spine of Mikel Arteta’s team.
The likes of Ben White and Aaron Ramsdale were signed to provide stability behind Arsenal’s two most significant pieces of business – prior to last summer – over the last few years in Thomas Partey and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang.
Both no doubt underwhelmed with their performances in 2020-21, with midfielder Partey struggling with injuries and later form in his first season in the Premier League following his £45million move from Atletico Madrid.
Thomas Partey (left) and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang (right) meet at AFCON on Friday
Meanwhile, striker Aubameyang suffered his worst year in front of goal since the 2010-11 season at Saint-Etienne, netting just 15 goals across all competitions last term.
Yet as the season dwindled to an unsatisfactory conclusion, fans could only hope that Partey, 28, would kick on this season, while Aubameyang, 32, would rediscover the sort of form that has made him one of deadliest finishers in Europe for the majority of the last decade.
But 2021-22 will remembered as the season where their Arsenal careers diverged, one heading on an upwards trajectory and towards becoming a key, experienced member of the side, while the other would now be best advised to head for the exit door as soon as possible having been stripped of the captaincy.
Aubameyang’s third disciplinary breach under Arteta’s tenure and subsequent exclusion from first-team matters means he and Partey have not been on the same pitch together since the Gunners’ defeat at Everton in early December.
Their Arsenal careers are at opposing ends as they prepare to face each other as opponents
That run, however, will end – providing Aubameyang has not suffered an issue since returning to training from Covid – when they are on opposing sides in Gabon’s clash with Ghana in the pair’s second Group C fixture at the Africa Cup of Nations today.
Aubameyang’s positive Covid test saw him miss Gabon’s hard-earned 1-0 victory over tournament debutants Comoros on Monday, a result which sees them currently top the group.
Meanwhile, Partey’s Ghana suffered a narrow 1-0 defeat at the hands of high-flying Morocco, a game in which he struggled to exercise midfield dominance, perhaps partly down to the Black Stars’ struggles in attack, which have seen them score just three goals in their last five games.
This latest clash in Cameroon’s capital Yaounde though may not be the do-or-die clash for either side it may have been if only the top two sides from each group qualified for the last 16, especially with Morocco likely to beat Comoros.
Instead, just like at Euro 2020, the four highest-ranked third-place teams will also qualify. But it will provide both sides – should they finish as one of those four third-place teams – another chance to gel and improve if and when they face a side that finished top of their respective group in the knockouts.
Moreover, on an individual level, it will allow Partey to build on the confidence he has gained at Arsenal very recently, while Aubameyang may well be satisfied with reminding everyone of his striking prowess and trying to convince clubs to make a move for him in this month’s transfer window.
Partey struggled in Ghana’s opening Group C defeat by Morocco on Monday
The Ghana midfielder offered a pretty scathing review in December of his 15-month spell in north London, and even admitted he had not adapted to all areas of English football just yet.
Asked to give himself a mark out of 10, Partey responded: ‘Personally I would say five or six. But with the marks of the (fans) also, I would give myself four.
‘Because there are moments in a game when I can really hurt the other team but there are also moments where, because I’m not yet adapted to the Premier League, maybe I lose a bit of focus and that’s when everything goes down.’
That loss of focus perhaps was evident in the game preceding the interview, a 3-2 defeat at Manchester United where he was guilty of giving away possession too cheaply, particularly in the first half. But his assessment did come with a vow.
‘I have to read more of the game. Now I am having a lot of continuous games, it is normal that some games, or some moments in the games, I will be down. With more games, with more confidence, I will be able to get to where I want to be.’
And after more shaky performances against Everton and Southampton, very recent displays suggest he is not far away from reaching that goal.
But he has demonstrated – notably against Man City – what a midfield presence he can be
Norwich away on Boxing Day provided him with a much-needed confidence boost, breaking up play well and passing the ball effectively alongside Granit Xhaka. But his statement showing came six days later against the Premier League champions.
There was roughly a 10-minute period in the first half of Manchester City’s 2-1 win at Arsenal on New Year’s Day where Pep Guardiola’s men simply couldn’t retain possession and were instead on the receiving end of a barrage of Arsenal attacks.
Arguably their primary nemesis – aside from Bukayo Saka – was Partey, who not only was a real force in front of his defence to break up City’s play, but also played like a man possessed going in the opposite direction to begin Arsenal’s attacks.
The Gunners certainly missed his presence in the FA Cup defeat by Nottingham Forest and those who are not convinced the Ghana man will kick on at the Emirates and become one of the leaders of the side, if he is not already, are now limited.
On the other hand, few believe Aubameyang can truly fight his way back into contention at Arsenal after having the captaincy forcefully removed from his grasp and with no date set on a potential return from the cold under Arteta.
Aubameyang has had the Gunners captaincy stripped off him and been frozen out at the club
The former Borussia Dortmund striker was struggling for goals prior to his disciplinary breach, failing to score in any of his last six top-flight matches.
And there is a rather convincing argument than Arsenal’s attack has more structure and greater fluidity and pace about it when Alexandre Lacazette is at its heart rather than Aubameyang.
There has always been a perennial fear throughout Aubameyang’s career that without his pace – and especially now without regularly chipping in with goals too – there is little he can offer any side.
Mikel Arteta appeared to disagree with that prior to his disciplinary breach and continued to regularly start him ahead of the likes of Lacazette.
He was seen partying before contracting Covid, consequently missing Gabon’s opener
The Frenchman has never hit the goalscoring heights Aubameyang has at Arsenal but he is undeniably superior when it comes to linking play and bringing the exciting talents of Gabriel Martinelli, Emile Smith Rowe and Bukayo Saka into the game.
But Arsenal’s off-the-field work also appears to suggest they have moved past Aubameyang. The Gunners are determined to land £58m Fiorentina star Dusan Vlahovic this month despite what appear to be astronomical wage demands, while Sportsmail also understands Everton striker Dominic Calvert-Lewin has admirers at Emirates Stadium.
The England marksman is extremely unlikely to leave Goodison Park this month and would be more of a summer target, but if Arsenal do manage to land Serbia’s Vlahovic this month, that will only hasten Aubameyang’s cause to move on himself.
And with Arsenal chances not set to be forthcoming, he can only put himself in the shop window by performing at AFCON with Gabon.
He is unsurprisingly the Panthers’ record goalscorer with 26 goals in 65 appearances and despite being stripped of the Arsenal captaincy, retains the armband for his country. But a positive Covid test did not provide the best start to AFCON.
But the striker confirmed on his Instagram he had returned to training ahead of Friday’s game
The source of the outbreak which saw Aubameyang contract the virus is unclear, but footage did emerge on social media of players – including the striker – socialising at their pre-tournament camp in Dubai.
But his consequent absence against Comoros will be a mere footnote with victory at the Ahmadou Ahidjo Stadium, given that it will almost certainly confirm their place in the knockout stages.
Gabon have lost both of their last two meetings against Ghana, with the Panthers’ most recent defeat just over a decade ago when they were beaten 2-1 in a friendly fixture in November 2011.
Friday would therefore be a perfect time for Aubameyang to end Gabon’s winless run stretching back to 2008 against the Black Stars and potentially help revive a stalled club career by attracting the attention of a potential suitor.
For Partey, it is a chance to build on a successful last month or so and help Ghana respond to Monday’s defeat and get them back on track in their bid to end their AFCON hoodoo by leading the midfield as he has briefly shown he can at Arsenal.
Aubameyang could put himself in shop window by leading Gabon to victory against Ghana