Mohamed Elneny is not the most eye-catching of footballers. He is not one given to moments of breathtaking individual skill, instead excelling in team play. His pass-and-move style is highly effective but not showy. However, this season he has been conspicuous on account of one thing—his absence.
Despite being a fixture in the Arsenal team for the final few months of last season, he has struggled for game time in 2016/17. The Egyptian can consider himself highly unfortunate to have lost his place, and manager Arsene Wenger must make sure he gets enough minutes to keep him happy.
Elneny arrived in January 2016 after Arsenal suffered a spate of midfield injuries. Long-term problems robbed Wenger of the services of Santi Cazorla, Francis Coquelin and Jack Wilshere.
With Coquelin out, it was anticipated that the Gunners would move for a traditional holding player. Instead, Wenger brought in Elneny—a player who is best described as a box-to-box midfielder.
The likelihood is that the original plan was to recruit Elneny in the summer. Wenger knew he stood to lose the trio of Mikel Arteta, Mathieu Flamini and Tomas Rosicky at the end of their contracts.
Granit Xhaka, brought over from Borussia Monchengladbach this summer, is the obvious replacement for Arteta. His passing range from deep emulates that of the former Arsenal captain.
Rosicky, meanwhile, appears to have been replaced from within. His busy attacking-midfield style finds echoes in the performances of academy graduate Alex Iwobi.
That leaves Elneny as the successor to Flamini. There are certainly parallels between the pair. Both have an energetic but understated style that can provide a considered complement to Arsenal’s more attacking players. However, the comparison does not do justice to the Egyptian's’s talents. Based on his performances thus far in English football, he has considerably greater potential than Flamini ever did.
It’s reductive to think of him as a mere workhorse. Elneny has great technical ability; that much is illustrated in the fact that last season he was selected to take many Arsenal set pieces, including corners. The fact that he was entrusted with dead-ball situations shows he’s a terrific striker of the ball—the thought of Flamini being handed such responsibilities is laughable.
Like many new arrivals in the Premier League, it took some time for him to adapt to the demands of English football. In fact, he did not start his first Premier League game until March. However, this was not just any fixture—it was the north London derby at White Hart Lane. The fact that Wenger was prepared to throw Elneny into such a crucial game was another demonstration of his faith in the former FC Basel man.
He went on to be the Gunners’ outstanding player in their Champions League second leg against Barcelona, and he was one of the first names on the teamsheet for the remainder of the 2015/16 campaign. His performances won acclaim from fans and his manager alike.
Speaking after the match at the Camp Nou, Wenger said, per Uche Amako of the Express:
He has made a big impact and his individual performance [against Barcelona] and his team attitude is absolutely fantastic.
When you think that he’s 23 years old, that he comes from [a club in] Switzerland and that he’s not used to that intensity, I believe overall it’s very positive.
He’s a very bright boy, very team-orientated and understands the game very quickly. He’s very keen to learn and he has a good combination of ambition and humility. That is a very good thing.
Elneny is a manager’s dream. He’s so selfless on the field and has a tactical awareness that few players can match. Although his best position is as a box-to-box midfielder, where he can employ his huge reserves of energy, he is capable of filling in a variety of roles.
He can be a destroyer, breaking up the play in front of the back four. He also has the passing ability to be useful in the final third, and he has filled in as a substitute in the wide positions this season. He has even played as a centre-back for his international side, bringing the ball out from the back to instigate attacking moves from deep.
That versatility enables him to play alongside almost any midfield partner—the problem at Arsenal is the sheer wealth of competition. His chances were not helped by the addition of Xhaka, whose price tag alone ensures that he’ll be given a relatively high status within the squad.
Arsenal also welcomed back the likes of Cazorla and Coquelin from injury, increasing the number of bodies jostling for one of those two prized central-midfield spots. When Wenger's prodigy, Wilshere, is forced to leave the club on loan for Bournemouth, it tells you something about the remarkable depth in the Arsenal squad.
That means Elneny has been limited to just one Premier League start this season, and that came on the opening day in the defeat to Liverpool.
Since then, he has proved a useful substitute—his cameo in Arsenal’s latest win over Burnley was particularly influential. With the home side sat deep and narrow in defence, Elneny’s quietly efficient ability to keep the ball moving across the pitch helped Wenger’s team to stretch a previously compact back four.
However, Elneny will want to be more than an emergency solution for Wenger—especially having already had a taste of regular first-team football at Arsenal.
Per James Dickenson of the Express, Elneny made his ambitions clear at the back end of last season:
When I join a new club I think about how to feature regularly, how to always be in the starting line-up and how to become a key midfielder.
I don't want just to adapt to the Premier League, I want to be an important player for Arsenal.
Before joining the club, I began to watch a lot of Arsenal games in the Premier League to understand the style of play in order to integrate into the club and the English game.
The most important thing for me has been listening to Arsene Wenger's advice and putting it into action. He has been giving me advice since the first day I arrived.
These are not the words of a player who has come to London to play a bit-part role. His usefulness as a squad player is clear, but Wenger’s task now is to rotate sufficiently to ensure Elneny feels valued at the Emirates Stadium.
Since arriving at Arsenal, he has been a revelation. It would be terrible to risk losing him by underusing him in the coming months.
James McNicholas is Bleacher Report's lead Arsenal correspondent and will be following the club from a London base throughout 2016/17. Follow him on Twitter here.