When Arsenal signed Mohamed Elneny from FC Basel in January, some supporters were a little underwhelmed. A club that has gained the financial muscle to lure the likes of Mesut Ozil and Alexis Sanchez was swooping for an unheralded midfielder from the Swiss league, arriving with a price tag well below £10 million.
Arsene Wenger’s comments about the deal did little to reassure supporters. Per Mark Irwin of the Sun, he said: “Maybe there wasn’t a lot of competition because we were the only interested club in signing him. Not too many people spoke about him and he was basically not much on the radar.”
However, Arsenal fans needn’t have worried too much. Not many supporters had heard of the likes of Patrick Vieira, Laurent Koscielny or Nacho Monreal prior to their arrival in north London.
Wenger has always had a great eye for talent, and he saw something in Elneny to pique his interest.
At the player’s unveiling, Wenger said, per Uche Amako of the Express:
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.
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.
Where he needs to adapt is to the challenges, the force needed in the Premier League to survive. I think that could demand a little bit of adaptation. But overall I think he has all the attributes to do well.
Elneny was a surprising signing. At the time of his arrival, Francis Coquelin was out injured, and Arsenal were expected to recruit a pure defensive midfielder as his replacement.
Instead, the Egypt international is something of a hybrid player, able to play deep but also in a role with greater freedom to roam. He is the quintessential box-to-box midfielder.
Perhaps Wenger realised that would be more useful to Arsenal in the medium term. Elneny’s versatility enables him to bring balance to the Gunners squad.
Wenger will have been mindful that he stands to lose Mathieu Flamini, Mikel Arteta and Tomas Rosicky at the end of their contracts this summer. In one move, he has signed a player able to compensate for the departure of all three players.
Wenger referenced that the player would require a period of adaptation, and so it proved. Initially it was frustrating for Arsenal fans to see the manager persisting with the imbalanced pairing of Aaron Ramsey and Flamini, while the new boy sat on the bench.
Wenger clearly deemed it too soon to throw in a player who had no prior experience of the Premier League. After gradually being introduced via the FA Cup, Elneny’s first start in the league did not actually arrive until March.
That it came in the north London derby demonstrates the faith that Wenger had built in him. He justified that belief, too, with an impressive performance, and since then he has been a constant fixture in the side.
The 23-year-old started all five of Arsenal’s matches last month, including opening his goalscoring account for the club with a spectacular strike at the Camp Nou. When Arsenal return from the international break, he looks certain to keep his place.
Any fans who were initially unconvinced by his arrival appear to have been won over now. In his first proper month as a starter, Elneny has been voted by the club’s supporters as their player of the month.
Wenger has been impressed with his impact, per the Express:
He arrived in January and I integrated him slowly.
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.
It’s easy to see why the Gunners boss is so enamoured with his new signing. He’s a manager’s dream—a selfless player who moulds his game to offer balance and structure to the team.
Before Elneny came into the side, Arsenal’s midfield looked disparate and dysfunctional. His huge reserves of energy mean he is able to cover vast amounts of ground in any given game.
In January and February, Arsenal frequently struggled to find an out-ball from the back. By contrast, Elneny appears constantly to be moving into space to make himself available for a pass. While his goal against Barcelona shows he is capable of providing end product, he is by nature a continuity player.
When he gets the ball, he keeps it simple, allowing the build-up play to continue. It’s a basic principle of "pass and move," but one that seemed curiously absent during the problematic partnership of Ramsey and Flamini.
Speaking of partnerships, Elneny appears to have struck up an effective one with Coquelin. That pair were outstanding during the recent 2-0 win over Everton, screening the back four and helping to instigate attacks from deep.
What will be fascinating to see is how Elneny copes when other players return from injury. The likes of Aaron Ramsey, Santi Cazorla and Jack Wilshere will soon be providing competition for his place.
At the moment, you would not bet against him beating off that competition. Few would suggest that Elneny is the most gifted individual among those players, but he does seem to serve the team better than most.
Elneny gives Wenger options. He has a breadth of skills that would enable him to play alongside a variety of other players. He could function as well alongside Coquelin as Cazorla. In the same way that Danny Welbeck is a Swiss Army knife of an attacker, providing multiple solutions, Elneny offers Wenger a multitude of choices in midfield.
The Egyptian’s style is perhaps not eye-catching enough for him to ever be recognised as a major star. However, the early evidence suggests he could prove invaluable to Arsenal in the years to come.