The Egyptian’s impressive showing upon his return from loan suggests he can provide an interesting, cost-effective option for the Gunners in midfield
It was entirely predictable that former Arsenal boss Arsène Wenger would speak warmly of Mohamed Elneny’s performance for the Gunners in the Community Shield. On a chilly London afternoon, the Egypt international produced a redemptive performance that evoked a famous Wenger-ism: he seemed like a new signing.
Some of that was to do with the fact the 28-year-old’s last competitive appearance for Arsenal came back in May 2019, in a 3-1 win over Burnley at Turf Moor as part of a heavily rotated starting 11. Following that, he went on to play three times as many minutes in a loan spell for Turkish side Besiktas last season as he had managed in the entirety of 2018/19.
Then there was the Gunners being decidedly understrength. There is a surplus of defenders at the Emirates, but midfielders are alarmingly thin in the ground. With Dani Ceballos’ loan deal yet to be renewed, stalwart Granit Xhaka seemed to be lacking a wing-man for the daunting test that Premier League champions Liverpool present. Enter: Elneny.
Absence makes the heart grow fonder. Or maybe plain old scarcity.
Whatever the case, the fact he was there in a moment of need is somewhat emblematic of his entire persona and style. “He is a fantastic team player,” Wenger said afterward, and generic as that sounds, it’s nevertheless eloquent: what makes Elneny useful is a conscientiousness that is easy to miss, and an availability that is easy to take for granted.
His style may seem effortless, but against a famously well-tuned Liverpool press, he did the hardest thing possible, staying calm as the horde bore down.
Twice he received the ball from goalkeeper Emiliano Martinez inside his own area with pressure bearing down, twice he swept the ball out to Rob Holding with total sangfroid. The first time, the ball was at the feet of Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang within three passes, the prelude to the game’s opening goal; the second time, James Milner was forced to scythe down the lively Bukayo Saka, earning a booking for his troubles.
So impressive was Elneny’s performance on the day – he lost out on the man of the match award to team mate Ainsley Maitland-Niles, but it cannot have been by much – that it has sparked something of a re-evaluation, both of him as a player and of his long-term viability at Arsenal.
As far as the former concern goes, there is little that the former Basel man has altered. He remains fundamentally the same footballer, but perhaps within the structure of Mikel Arteta’s system, it is easier to appreciate his abilities.
That context is, of course, important: under Unai Emery, there was a sense of frantic disorder that served the opposite purpose, undermining the sort of elegance and composure that Elneny brought (and brings still).
If Emery was unable to channel a player in that mould, Arteta seems the perfect coach to do precisely that. If so, might Arsenal then not be better served retaining him as a squad option?
It is worth considering, especially in light of the club’s interminable pursuit of Thomas Partey.
The two are far from the same profile: Atletico’s man is the more expansive player, able to cut through lines passing forward in a way that Elneny simply does not.
Partey is also better at carrying the ball; again, this is not a skill the Egyptian necessarily possesses.
However, there is more than one way to play the pivot role in the three-man midfield configuration most expect Arteta to eventually adopt.
There is something to be said for unflappability under pressure, as well as the ability to turn over and recycle possession at a high level, while also being able to drop in and offer support when teammates are caught out of position.
Ultimately, the biggest obstacle in this regard may be Arteta himself, and his own vision of the player at the base of midfield.
So far, it seems the club’s stance is Partey or nothing, and there is enough in the Spaniard’s marginalization of the tenacious Lucas Torreira to suggest he is not content with safe distribution. His “In the moment that he is with us” comment re:Elneny on the eve of the Community Shield was just as pointed.
However, even all-star midfields can, at some point, do with a player like the Egyptian: limited, but unerringly consistent in application and ‘positive’ (Arteta’s description) in his conduct within the group.