Every month the Arsenal Magazine brings you the complete Gunners guide to members of our first team squad.
This time it's the turn of Egypt international Mohamed Elneny.
FROM EVERY ANGLE
Name: Mohamed ElnenyPosition: Midfield Squad number: 35 Nationality: Egyptian Born: El-Mahalla El-Kubra, Egypt, July 11, 1992 Joined Arsenal: from Basel on January 14, 2016 Previous clubs: Joined Arsenal: from FC Basel on January 14, 2016 Arsenal debut: v Burnley (h) FA Cup, January 30, 2016 (won 2-1) First Arsenal goal: v Barcelona (a) Champions League, March 16, 2016 (lost 3-1) Arsenal honours: Community Shield 2015 Egypt caps: 40 (3 goals) Twitter: @ElNennyM
Not every player has the luxury of playing behind someone like Mesut Ozil, so the ones who do will be quick to tell you how easy those stars make the game for everyone else. For David Hillier, that star was Anders Limpar.
A diminutive playmaker for Arsenal between 1990 and 1994, Anders was the first face David looked for as soon as he had won the ball back in midfield. Within moments of passing the ball, he knew the Super Swede would find Alan Smith and Smudger would, inevitably, find the net. It was as simple as that, but that statement is not meant to undersell David’s talents – far from it. Although the former England Under-21 international’s performances in that shielding role may have gone under the radar at the time, he was an important part of the Arsenal side that won the 1991 First Division title with only a single defeat.
Fast-forward 25 years and, even though modern teams have moved on from using an orthodox 4-4-2 with two central midfielders, the shielding role remains the same at Arsenal. While Mesut Ozil and Alexis have been given licence to cause chaos up front, Arse?ne Wenger has entrusted a quartet of central midfielders to provide cover and launch attacks from deep. The obvious current candidate for David’s role back in day might be Francis Coquelin but, even though the former Gunner can see a lot of his own qualities in the tough-tackling Frenchman, he believes his game has more in common with Mohamed Elneny’s.
“I was probably a bit more of a deeper player than him but, like me, he probably turns himself off a little bit when he gets into the final third,” David explains. “He doesn’t make those forward runs because he knows his role is to stay back. It’s a disciplined job and he’s a good passer too. “In that sense, we’re quite similar because I always thought that I could pass a little bit. He probably intercepts more than I did as I was much more of a tackler, but that’s the nature of the game now. Elneny, Coquelin, Mustafi and Koscielny would all rather try to intercept than make the tackle but that’s also because the rules have changed.”
It’s not just Mohamed’s interceptions that have caught David’s eye. Just four months into his Arsenal career, the Egypt international broke Santi Cazorla’s Premier League record for most successful passes in a single game during 2015/16 with 122 against Watford. Couple that with the fact that Mohamed averaged 12km a game – more than any other Gunner last season – and you’ve got a player following the same football philosophy as David.
“Stefan Schwarz always used to tell me, ‘Do what you can do, not what you want you to do’,” he laughs. “It’s good advice because football’s a simple game and there’s no need to complicate it. That’s where we’ve seen players get into trouble this season but Mohamed’s never had that problem because he keeps his game so simple. “He knows it’s down to the players in front of him to try to be creative. Arse?ne Wenger makes sure that players don’t get into the wrong areas because he knows that trying to attack quickly can leave his side exposed.
“They’ve got to do everything from a safe base and Mohamed provides that. It’s important that he’s disciplined enough to pass the ball to others. Now and again, when the pass is on, he can play it, but he’s got to be sure of that pass because otherwise they lose the ball and his defenders are under pressure. “Our job is just to break up play and then pass it to someone like Dennis Bergkamp or Mesut Ozil in the No 10 role, who can connect the midfield to the striker. Teams gradually developed lots of different cultures and qualities in their midfield and, once they strike the right balance, they’re on to a winner. Therefore, for every Mesut Ozil, you need a Mohamed Elneny.”
Indeed, given Mesut’s current form in attack, there is less emphasis on the likes of Mohamed to be directly involved in goals. The Egypt midfielder only has one to his name in Arsenal colours so far, but he will no doubt look back at his stunning strike against Barcelona as fondly as David remembers his own two goals for the Gunners.
“My first was a good goal but everyone tells me that it only went in because Mark Hooper was in goal so it doesn’t really count,” the former midfielder smiles. “It was a corner and the ball just bounced down, so it was more of a predator’s goal. I just pounced on it so it was more like an Ian Wright goal than anything else.
“There were only a couple of goals that I scored and I remember every little bit about them, and all of the great feelings that came with them. I remember not having a celebration and thinking, ‘What do I do?’
Even when I was younger I didn’t score many goals, so I didn’t have any celebration planned. I think in the end I ran off, tried an Alan Shearer with my arm up and then gave up. “The other one that I scored was a better goal from the edge of the box against Sheffield United. It went right into the top corner but it was only in front of the old North Bank mural, so there wasn’t really a crowd reaction at that end!”
Although David can recall his first strike perfectly, fans would be forgiven for forgetting it, as it would ultimately by outshone by Anders’ moment of genius. “That was the other thing which took the shine off my goal,” David laughs. “If it wasn’t bad enough that I rarely score and didn’t have a celebration, Anders went and scored from five yards inside their half. But what can you say when someone does that? “He had that ability because he had such a short backlift that you don’t even know he’s shooting. It was even more impressive because he was able to generate so much power from it and it flew into the goal.” David clearly has plenty of respect for Anders and Mohamed’s work on the pitch but, given the chance to play in the modern era, there is only one Premier League player he would model his game on.
“If I could be any player then it would probably be N’Golo Kante, someone who’s going box to box and getting someone out of the way,” he says. “He’s a real essential and integral part of the team.
“When I look through the Premier League I do look for those sorts of players. I don’t see many of them who have the aura of a world- class player, but what they do in their team is far more important than what they are individually.
“These are the types of players who would never get into a World XI, but the role their fulfil for their team is far more important than any individual award. The game is obviously going to change a lot over the next 25 years but, as far as I’m concerned, the importance of that holding midfielder will always remain the same.”
MOHAMED'S KEY MOMENTS SO FAR
SIGNING FOR ARSENALJanuary 14, 2016FC Basel had been tracking the El Mokawloon midfielder for some time before inviting him to a training camp in early 2013. Mohamed made his debut for the Swiss club in a 1-1 friendly draw with Steaua Bucharest, and impressed enough for manager Marat Yakin to sign him up. He might not have been a household name, but followers of European football will have been aware of his track record against English clubs.
In 2013 Basel beat Tottenham on penalties in the Europa League quarter- finals, after a pair of 2-2 draws, and Elneny was involved again as Basel beat Chelsea and Liverpool in successive Champions League campaigns. Arse?ne Wenger was taking notes. In fact, the boss revealed the Egyptian’s signing after the Gunners had slugged out a 3-3 draw with Liverpool at Anfield on January 13, and the following day it was officially announced that Mohamed Elneny had joined Arsenal.
“This is an indescribable feeling,” said the Egyptian. “I wanted a player who can play defensive but can as well play to box to box,” said Wenger. “His strengths are his technical level, his vision, his intelligence, his disciplined attitude and I think he has the physical qualities to play at the top level.”
Incidentally, although Mohamed left FC Basel in January, he had done so with the defending champions holding a ten-point lead, and because he had featured in 16 league games he was eligible for his fourth Swiss Super League winners medal when the club sealed the title with five games remaining.
ARSENAL DEBUTJANUARY 30, 2016 Mohamed made his debut when he came into the team for the Gunners’ 2-1 win over Burnley in the FA Cup fourth round, and it was an encouraging one. The Gunners had stuttered in January, following up the action-packed draw at Anfield with a goalless stalemate at Stoke City and a 1-0 defeat at home to Chelsea, so Arse?ne Wenger shuffled the midfield pack for this tie at Emirates Stadium, bringing in the Egyptian alongside the returning Francis Coquelin – who had missed two months with a knee injury – in place of Mathieu Flamini and Aaron Ramsey. It worked.
With Coquelin in the holding role, Elneny was an energetic presence from start to finish, covering plenty of ground as he ran from box to box, setting up two chances for his team-mates and attempting five shots, four of which were his infamous thunderbolts from outside the box. And while it’s unusual for a player who covers so much ground to boast a passing accuracy of over 95 per cent from 84 passes, that’s exactly what the debutant did in front of a home crowd that was looking for someone to raise the tempo of Arsenal’s play. Wenger was certainly happy with his new signing.
“He has shown interesting ingredients like game intelligence, mobility and technical ability, and had some good shots,” said the boss after the Gunners had taken their place in the fifth round.
GOAL V BARCELONAMARCH 16, 2016 Mo’s first Arsenal goal came on arguably the biggest stage in club football, as the Gunners took on Barcelona at the Nou Camp. Trailing 1-0 early in the second half, Alexis cut the ball back for the advancing Egyptian and his first-time finish from outside the area flew past Marc-Andre ter Stegen. It was quite a way to get up and running, and it comfortably won Arsenal’s Goal of the Month award.
The Egyptian impressed in other ways, too. Despite Barcelona pressuring and squeezing the Gunners’ midfield and racking up possession of nearly 65 per cent, Mohamed completed 43 passes – second only to Mesut Ozil’s 58 – with a passing accuracy of 93 per cent. That was the highest of any Arsenal player, and well clear of Mathieu Flamini, who was next up on 88.2 per cent.
It shouldn’t really have been a surprise. Elneny boasted a passing accuracy of 92.4 per cent in his five Europa League games for Basel last season before his switch to the Emirates – and needless to say his Man of the Match performance against Fiorentina, like his one at the Nou Camp, included a long-range thunderbolt.
“We know it’s a big stadium and a great stadium too but I’m happy with my performance today, but not that happy about the result,” he said after the game. “I knew it would be hard, but there is no ‘hard’ in football.”
PERFORMANCE AGAINST WATFORDAPRIL 2, 2016
There was, it has to be said, a degree of pessimism around Emirates Stadium towards the end of last season. Having beaten league leaders Leicester City 2-1 on February 14, the Gunners had then lost league games to Manchester United and Swansea City, and three days before heading out of Europe they had surrendered the FA Cup by losing 2-1 at home to Watford. So having beaten Everton 2-0 at Goodison Park, Arsenal were out for revenge against the Hornets at Emirates Stadium on April 2.
The Gunners were back to their fluid best that day, with goals from Alexis, Alex Iwobi, Hector Bellerin and Theo Walcott putting their London rivals to the sword, and it was Eleny – fresh from collecting the Player of the Month award for March – who made the team tick. In fact he broke the record for the most successful passes in a Premier League match in 2015/16 with 122, two more than Santi Cazorla’s previous high against Newcastle United.
The statistic summed up his game perfectly – he was outstanding without feeling the need to stand out. He was also already on his way to a second successive Player of the Month award.
“He has brought something to the team,” said Arse?ne Wenger afterwards. “He is a very intelligent player who is also very mobile and works very hard for the team. He gives us tactical stability. He made a very good pair with Coquelin in terms of winning the ball back, and also in the distribution as well.”
PERFORMANCE AGAINST SUNDERLANDSEPTEMBER 24, 2016
The Gunners had created a feelgood factor around the team in the weeks after the opening-day defeat to Liverpool, yet there was a minor hitch when they failed to beat Middlesbrough at Emirates Stadium on October 22. Suddenly, there were issues in midfield, with Granit Xhaka suspended, Santi Cazorla injured and Aaron Ramsey not yet back to full fitness. A trip to the Premier League’s bottom club was a potential banana skin – especially when Jermain Defoe cancelled out Alexis’s opener from the penalty spot on 65 minutes – but the attack did their job and ultimately racked up a 4-1 win.
So too did the central midfield partnership of Coquelin and Elneny, who once again was an unsung hero in the centre of the pitch and beyond. He played 97 passes – 40 more than his midfield partner, who was next on the list – with a team-high accuracy of 93.8 per cent (except for Aaron Ramsey, who was successful with all 20 of his passes after coming on in the 77th minute). There’s a real theme emerging here. When Elneny plays, the ball tends to come through him and tends to find a team-mate.
He would follow up his solid performance at the Stadium Of Light with an assist in the 3-2 win away to Ludogorets, despite only playing 13 minutes. In fact, it was his first touch that released Mesut Ozil to score his sensational late winner. Whether he’s in the starting line-up or coming on from the bench, Mo’s season is up and running.
ARSENE WENGER ON MOHAMED ELNENY
On what makes Elneny special...I have to say, on a human front, that he is loved unanimously at this club. He possesses all the qualities that you would want from a player. He is passionate, every day he gives absolutely 100 per cent in training, he is friendly with everybody and he is hugely humble. I must say that I completely admire his team attitude and I’m a big fan of Elneny, on the human front, that’s before you even talk about his qualities as a footballer.
On his footballing strengths... I saw him first at Basel, and watched a lot of videos of him. He is a guy with excellent technique, he’s very mobile. He’s always available on the pitch, always switched on and he works very hard – both offensively and defensively – for the team. I must say as well that he has improved a lot technically and in his decision-making, and I think he will be a very important player for the club.
On his unassuming nature...He is basically a superstar in Egypt, but part of his personality is that you would never know that if you met him. It’s part of top performance – humility is to accept that what decides how good you are is your next performance, not your reputation. We have had people like that before here. We had Gilberto, who was a world champion with Brazil when he arrived, but you would never have guessed it. It was just his personality. You always have a big respect when you meet someone like that.
Georg Heitz is the sporting director at FC Basel, Mo’s previous club, and is the man who brought the Egyptian to European football
I can remember the first time I watched Mohamed. It was at the Under-20 World Cup in Colombia, and I spotted both him and Mohamed Salah, who signed for us first. Six months later, Elneny joined too. He has many qualities, but it was his passing skills, his passion for the sport always stood out – and he could run like a horse!
I can remember when I was negotiating the deal for Salah with El Mokawloon, and their president told me he had another player for me. He meant Elneny. I can still remember what he said, “He has Bluetooth with Salah!” He would call me and tell me to take Elneny too. To be honest, we didn’t really have space for him, but quickly we saw that he was a good player. We invited him for a trial.
It was during our winter break, and we were in Marbella. He had already played for the Olympic national team of Egypt, and I remember standing with the president at his first training session. After five minutes, Philipp Degen, our right full back, came over to us and said, “You must sign this player immediately – he plays the ball like Schweinsteiger”.
He was so good during that trial that our coach really wanted to get him. So he signed and was a big success at Basel. Even when he became a star here, he was the one who distributed the water bottles to all his team-mates in the dressing room. He’s just a really, really nice guy – and he actually lived so close to our stadium that you could see the pitch from his apartment window.
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