At some point during the last 66 years of a life dedicated to the game, Arsene Wenger decided that there is only one way to win a football match. The blueprint remains similar after nearly two decades in north London, even if the game itself has been through great waves of change in that time. Wenger has always been stubborn.
Date of birth: July 11, 1992
Place of birth: Mahalla, Egypt
Former clubs: El Mokawloon (2008-2018), Basel (2013-16)
International: Egypt (40 caps, 3 goals)
But as the oasis of trophies Arsenal enjoyed in the new millennium has turned to a dusty wasteland of excuses and recriminations, what once was seen in the Frenchman as uncompromising now seems pig-headed – a pathological need to go against the grain in the vain hope of some higher footballing truth.
Time is running out for Wenger in his bid to land one more Premier League crown, but the signing of Mohamed Elneny has vastly improved next season’s prospects. It could even happen on Wenger’s own terms.
Not since Patrick Vieira in 1996 has a player pitched up in the Arsenal midfield and brought such instant assurance with the ball at his feet.
Against Watford earlier this month, the Egyptian clocked a Premier League 2015/16 record of 122 completed passes, and so careful is Elneny in possession that there is serious case to be made for this being the ball-playing midfielder around which a serious legacy could be arranged.
Against Crystal Palace at the Emirates on Sunday he had made 53 successful passes before half-time; contrast this with the 32 that Mathieu Flamini managed in 85 minutes playing in the same role in the 0-0 draw with Southampton in February (albeit, in a game where Arsenal saw less of the ball).
Against Palace there was another home draw but this time a roaming presence in midfield providing dependability at the back, a threat higher up and a genuine sense of balance to a typically lopsided team.
The problem when Flamini has come into the team this season is that for all the bite and gnarl he offers in the tackle, he disrupts the team’s fluency with his reluctance to turn with the ball.
Wenger wants the spine of his side to be able to channel the ball from back to front, but this only works with a holding midfielder who is willing to come deep to receive and then play out. Whereas the Frenchman’s instinct is to play the way he is facing, Elneny turns and looks up the pitch.
From the very start against Palace, the Egyptian showed the combination of strength and trepidation required to get Arsenal moving.
On six minutes he dispossessed Yannick Bolasie with a sense of entitlement that the Gunners would once have displayed as a matter of course on their own patch, but which these days appears only in flashes. Elneny had tracked Bolasie’s run as he brought the ball upfield and didn’t shirk his task, turning over possession with apparent ease.
What marks the £5 million signing from Basel out is that for the first time in a long while, Arsenal seem to have a player who is everything in one. He has the ball control of Santi Cazorla but without the slightness of frame, the grit of Francis Coquelin minus the recklessness that more than once this season has let the team down.
Elneny is at once rugged and calm, his grace in holding onto the ball in brilliant contrast to the force with which he wins it.
When Arsenal’s goal came on the stroke of half-time, he showed his worth without the ball in the opposition third, teaming up with Danny Welbeck to dispossess Joe Ledley. It was his willingness to get forward and patrol the area between Palace’s midfield and defence in the hope of a loose ball which meant the Gunners were able to outnumber the visitors in dangerous territory, plundering possession and panicking a defence which struggled thereafter to regroup.
On this occasion Arsenal got lucky and the ball dropped kindly for Welbeck to feed Alexis Sanchez, but it was the kind of fortune which is the residue of design – just rewards for the plucky and the hard working.
Francis and Mo
If Elneny’s most conspicuous work against Palace came from his sharp passing and beaverish harrowing, it’s through his unerring synchronicity with his midfield partner Coquelin that he looks set to have the surest impact on this team in the long term.
Without the ball the two moved with a crisp rhythm, each seemingly always aware of his partner’s position and moving with the same calibrated discipline that Arsenal’s back four of the ‘90s thwarted opposition.
Of the two, Coquelin is the more committed in the tackle, with the three successful ones he made against Palace clean and uncompromising. But this job was made easier by the proximity of his midfield partner, repeatedly ensuring that Arsenal’s two anchors hunted the ball as a pair and gave definition and shape to the hosts in protecting the back four.
When Coquelin broke shape and attacked, which happened more than once on Sunday, Elneny sat and held the fort. In games when Aaron Ramsey has filled the second deep midfield berth there has been the constant concern that when the sometimes-impetuous Coquelin moves forward, there will be a gaping hole left in behind.
It’s not the case with Elneny installed in the middle, because the Egyptian is happy to spot gaps and plug them when his team-mates roam.
The new man, replaced by Theo Walcott on 85 minutes, finished the game with 107 successful passes on a day when Arsenal dominated the ball with 72% possession. Of these, 49 were shared between him and Mesut Ozil, a sure sign that once these two grow comfortable with each others’ game, there will be rewards to be reaped.
The next challenge for Elneny will be how he integrates once Cazorla returns from his lengthy injury lay-off. With another ball-player in the side, will he be able to create the kind of link-ups that Wenger craves in pursuit of faultlessly slick football?
The alternative is that the two will find each other inhabiting the same space on the pitch, clogging rather than facilitating each others’ fluidity.
But it’s hard not to be optimistic. There is evolution still to come in these last chapters of Wenger’s Arsenal.
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