I just finished watching the Africa Cup of Nations final, with Mohamed Elneny returning from a calf injury for Egypt against Cameroon. It was a pretty typical display from him – always moving, offering, thinking, shepherding, switching play. Oh, and he scored the first goal of the game, curling a classy one home from an unlikely angle. Unfortunately the Indomitable Lions came out indomitably in the second half and won it late, 2-1, with the Pharoahs tiring. Bad luck Mo, now get yourself home.
Notable Arsenal absentees this month have been Granit Xhaka from sitting in front of the defence and Arsene Wenger from sitting in the dugout. But we may have missed Elneny the most. Every time the opposition dribbles through our very essence, every time our defence and attack disconnect, his winning attitude and conservative technique seem increasingly desirable. When the flaws in your teams are so basic and existential, the solution needs to be something solid, something spinal. He may not be flash or forceful, but Elneny is always present in a game.
Don’t forget, this time last year he was one of the two stabiliser wheels – Iwobi the other – introduced to reduce wobbles that threatened a very messy season’s end. We finally looked a team again, with our cut-price January purchase winning consecutive player of the month awards, as well as Arsenal’s goal of the season. We find ourselves in the same situation now, in need of the same Egyptian magic.
Elneny’s reputation is as low-key as his game. I’ve only once heard his ‘song’, from three half-hearted lads outside the Parc Des Princes. It’s hard to find anyone at the Emirates wearing a shirt with his name. The predictable consternation that greets the release of any teamsheet rarely touches him, focussing instead on the exclusion or inclusion (depending on the week) of Theo, Oli, Gabriel, the Ox. Motherfuckers act like they forgot about Mo. Mo, the man with a team-high pass completion rate of 93.9%. Mo, the long distance runner, who covers more ground than anyone else can.
By all accounts Mo is a nice boy. He seems to love playing for Arsenal, and isn’t likely to complain as a regular on the bench. Under a manager who likes the whole family
to be harmonious, this means he doesn’t quite get his share. Despite suffering no injuries or suspensions, Elneny has completed fewer Premier League minutes this season than Coquelin, Ramsey, or Xhaka, starting just 6 games. Right now he seems the compelling option to me. He has the same easy endurance as Ramsey but uses it to opposite, egoless, effect. Where Ramsey tries to make every pass count, Elneny just tries to make every pass. He might not have the same range of passing as Xhaka but – and I turn your attention to the assist for Ozil away at Ludogorets – he’s not bad. At the moment Xhaka just seems unfit though. Unfit mentally for big games and turning points, and physically unfit too, his tackling and distribution dropping off noticeably after an hour in most matches.
For now Elneny is a limited player, but reliable and consistent, who looks like he will improve with trust and time. At 24 years old he’s young – younger than, say, Jack Wilshere. When he returns from the tournament in Gabon he deserves a run. It might seem counterintuitive, when we have lost any ruthlessness, to inject our nicest player into the fold, but he will offer, and think, and move the ball successfully between defence and attack. He’s probably not a superhero, but these cute kids might just be onto something anyway: