For much of the last year, if not longer, Avram Grant has been criticised for a certain conservatism over team selection.
“Why does the Israeli coach stay true to the same underperformers over and over again?” was the query, while others lamented the manager’s seeming unwillingness to trial local talents or some of the bright young things of the Ghanaian game.
Quite how, for example, Latif Blessing has never got a look in to the Black Stars’ set-up, despite his remarkable goal haul in the Ghana Premier League, remains a mystery.
Elsewhere, he’s been criticised for keeping faith in a perceived underperforming goalkeeper—although those critics must have been somewhat silenced by Razak Brimah’s performance against Mali—and for failing to identify an able backup for Harrison Afful at right-back.
Certainly, Grant’s inter-Afcon time in charge of the Black Stars has been marked by conservatism and stasis.
Few new faces have truly broken into the side, with only one of the 12 starters at the Nations Cup so far not featuring at the last Afcon two years ago.
That man, of course, is Thomas Teye Partey, who was an unexpected starter in Ghana’s opener against Uganda, and built on that encouraging showing with a Man of the Match display against Mali in the Black Stars’ second match.
Partey’s rise to prominence in this team comes as something of a surprise not because of his talent, which few have ever doubted, but because of his relative inactivity at club level.
Ahead of the Nations Cup, the midfielder had only played 64 minutes across six substitute appearances in the Champions League and La Liga.
He’s thus far failed to kick on from his breakout campaign with Atletico Madrid last season, and it would have been little surprise had he been culled from the Ghana selection—a la Jeffrey Schlupp—due to a lack of game time.
However, not only has Partey made the cut, he’s also established himself as a starter—at the expense of Afriyie Acquah—and emerged as one of Ghana’s key men in Gabon.
Grant’s tournament selections have come in stark contrast to the perceived conservatism of his inter-Afcon tenure, and Partey is the latest example in a long time of decisions that show flair and boldness on the part of the coach.
Take, for example, his decision to trial a three-man backline at the beginning of the 2015 Afcon, to experiment with Mohammed Awal and Mohammed Rabiu and then jettison both.
His remoulding of Wakaso Mubarak into a dynamic central midfielder rather than a peripheral wideman has also proved productive, while it was a brave move to break up the tried and tested Jonathan Mensah-John Boye defensive partnership to include Daniel Amartey from the start here in Gabon.
It remains to be seen whether the decision to overlook David Accam and, particularly, Waris Majeed from the Afcon squad will prove inspired or inane.
But on Partey, and specifically naming him ahead of Acquah, Grant looks to have struck gold.
The powerful midfielder is not the kind of technical, creative midfielder that Ghana have been crying out for, but he possesses enough technique to take a man on and, particularly against Uganda, regularly sought to drive forward with the ball and prompt uncertainty in the final third.
Defensively, he offers a physical presence akin to Acquah, but brings more forceful tackling, accurate passing and astute reading of the game than the Torino man, at least recently.
His solidity, concentration and determination are also helping to get the best out of Wakaso, as the Panathinaikos midfielder has sought to press forward more and to feed Ghana’s quartet of talented forwards.
The belated emergence of Partey as a bona fide international talent bodes well for the Black Stars’ midfield moving forwards, in the short term, has introduction in the national side’s midfield gives Ghana a certain stability and, perhaps paradoxically, a vibrancy that has too often been lacking under Grant.
Thomas the Tank already looks the part, and, as Ghana eye the final four, it could prove to be another tournament masterstroke by ‘conservative’ Grant!