Mohamed Elneny was one of Arsene Wenger’s cut-price gambles. Wenger once said he didn’t gamble in the traditional sense, but he enjoyed speculating on reasonably cheap players in the hope that they would emerge as superstars.
His track record in this area was beyond reproach for the first ten years as he unearthed an endless stream of world-class talents and it became something of a rod for his own back as he had to deter envious suitors every season and transfer window. Mohamed Elneny arrived at Arsenal in 2016 for around £7.4m with his new boss praising his virtues:
“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.”
So, quite the appraisal, except Wenger seemed unable to employ the Egyptian frequently enough to showcase those qualities, and gradually, everyone seemed to get to the front of the queue for a midfield role ahead of Elneny.
Wenger left and Emery came in and still the Egyptian couldn’t force his way into the side, so it was agreed that he’d be loaned to Besiktas for the remainder of the 2019/20 season. Fans were hoping that the move would be permanent but the cash wasn’t forthcoming, so Elneny came back to the Emirates, where it was generally thought that his opportunities would be few and far between.
When he came back, Mikel Arteta was in the role, with the Spaniard offering fresh chances to anyone not called Ozil and when that chance arrived, it was obvious that Mohamed Elneny was not the same player. He was more aware, more focused, and more committed and many thought he looked like a new player. However, he competed with Granit Xhaka and Dani Ceballos and up against those established names, his future was still in doubt.
Arteta had become a fan of the midfielder towards the end of last season and the beginning of this, recognising that the player works hard individually and for the team. He had continued to impress in training and as we all know, if you want Arteta’s attention, then you keep your head down and apply yourself consistently. That attitude saw him nudge his way into the team alongside Thomas Partey for the game against United and few will deny he was a revelation.
He looked sharp and full of running. He was making himself available, had good movement and distribution. He intercepted, made passes, instigated attacks, and pressed in and out of possession. He was like a completely new player, not the flair player that gets the headlines but the solid performer, the cement between the bricks.
How appropriate he should do it in the United vs Arsenal game at Old Trafford, the home of football legend Nobby Stiles. If there was ever a grafter that went unmentioned during a game, it was Stiles. That’s not a comparison at all, apart from the fact that teams can accommodate players that work hard and allow the more gifted talents to shine.
I suddenly like the look of Mohamed Elneny with Thomas Partey as a durable spine in front of Gabriel and Leno. Perhaps, all Arteta’s hard work is about to pay off this campaign. Arteta singled out the midfielder for praise after the penalty win by saying:
“He has this energy as a person. He goes in the room and he creates that atmosphere. Today I said that we needed that energy and that positive feeling that he brings all the time. I think he was tremendous.”
“Obviously I played with him so I know his qualities and who he is as a person, and what he brings to the squad.”
“I like players that have zero ego, who plays for the team, who want to contribute regardless of what it is, whether that’s one minute or 96 minutes or just by being there and giving positive feedback all the time.”
“He contributes to our culture and is a person who admired by everyone at the football club. And now I think his qualities he’s showing as a footballer, I always believed he had them.”
It appears that the relationship between the manager and player is beginning to bear fruit, which could put Arsenal in a much stronger position this season.