In Arsenal’s last match against Stoke City, there was a new face on the substitutes' bench. Having completed his move from Swiss side Basel, Mohamed Elneny was included in the matchday squad for the first time.
Arsenal fans could be forgiven for not being entirely sure just how the 23-year-old will fit into their team. Having plied his trade in Egypt and Switzerland, he has not had huge exposure on British shores.
What’s certain is that he will be fielded as one of the two deeper central midfielders in Arsene Wenger’s 4-2-3-1 system. The question is, which one?
Typically, Wenger uses one pure holding player alongside another with more license to break forward. For much of the season, that meant Francis Coquelin partnering Santi Cazorla. With both those players now injured, he has Mathieu Flamini covering for Aaron Ramsey instead.
It seems Wenger believes that Elneny could fill either of those roles. Speaking to Arsenal.com about his attributes, the Gunners boss said:
His strengths are his technical level, his vision, his intelligence, his disciplined attitude and his physical attitude to compete at a high level. I think he has the physical qualities to play at the top level.
He can be box to box and be a holding midfielder so that is for us very promising. We wanted a versatile player and I wanted a player who can play defensive but can as well play to box to box.
It’s clear Wenger regards his new signing as someone that can provide several solutions to the current midfield crisis.
For now, we have to assume that Wenger will primarily look to use Elneny as a defensive midfielder. That’s where Arsenal have the greatest need—although Mikel Arteta and Flamini are both available, neither is able to match the muscle Coquelin brings to proceedings.
Elneny’s strength and stamina could help the Gunners cope with Coquelin’s absence. Alongside Ramsey, he could form a physically formidable partnership.
Once Coquelin returns to action, Wenger’s plans for Elneny may change. He might be used alongside the Frenchman in an occasional double-pivot to swamp more dangerous opposition, such as Luis Enrique’s Barcelona.
Alternatively, his box-to-box lung capacity could be used to allow Aaron Ramsey the occasional rest.
Effectively, Elneny looks like a long-term replacement for Flamini. He shares the Frenchman’s work ethic, tactical flexibility and commitment.
Flamini’s contract is due to expire at the end of the season, and it’s easy to see how Elneny could take his place in the Arsenal setup. His technical ability should even make him something of an upgrade.
It’s unlikely that Wenger will throw him into the lineup for the forthcoming London derby with Chelsea, so the chances are that Elneny will not be afforded a first start for the club until the FA Cup clash with Burnley on January 30.
That is when the fans will get the first real indication as to how Wenger plans to use Elneny moving forward.