A north London derby at White Hart Lane is quite the occasion for a full Premier League debut.
It’s even more daunting when you’re in red.
Signed by Arsenal in January, Mohamed Elneny had been restricted to starts in two FA Cup home games against Championship opposition before last weekend, when he played at Old Trafford. That performance came in very particular circumstances, with Arsenal chasing the game and the midfielder featuring from the bench for just 20 minutes. He completed all 17 of his passes that afternoon and, as he had in the FA Cup, looked composed on the ball.
Then in midweek, the Egyptian was back on the bench and not introduced despite Arsenal trailing Swansea City. In the past, Arsène Wenger has opted to remove Francis Coquelin from the match in such a situation but persevered with his fellow Frenchman in Wednesday’s 2-1 defeat.
So it was quite a surprise to see Elneny named on Saturday’s teamsheet, thrown to the lions for his first Premier League start. It could’ve been a make or break afternoon, but the 23-year-old came through superbly. If anything, I am now more convinced than ever that he’s capable of playing for the club.
Not entirely unfamiliar with the big stage – Elneny played Champions League matches against Real Madrid and Liverpool when at Basel – this was a real test. Under Mauricio Pochettino, Spurs have been drilled into playing an intelligent and structured pressing game, forcing turnovers from the opposition constantly and giving you no time at all in possession for the majority of matches. This, however, was no concern to a man making his first Premier League start.
Easing into the game (as much of the Arsenal team did), Elneny played to the left of Francis Coquelin, often forming a midfield diamond with Aaron Ramsey on the other side and Mesut Özil ahead. Unlike his Welsh teammate, Arsenal’s new midfielder generally tucked inside and stayed deep, partnering Coquelin at the base of the midfield. Defensively he showed his discipline and intelligence, rarely attempting tackles and preferring to wait for mistakes from the opposition before stealing the ball: only Aaron Ramsey (14) made more ball recoveries than Elneny’s 10 on Saturday, particularly impressive given that this is an area where Spurs and their midfielders really excel.
Being a good midfielder in the defensive phase isn’t all about tackles, which can leave you exposed, or see you dribbled past should you fail to win the ball. That situation is a tricky one to recover from, and the best defensive players stay on their feet more often than not.
With smart positioning and awareness, he often looked to shield the movement of Christian Eriksen as he drifted in from the right flank, meaning Spurs couldn’t overload the halfspace inside Kieran Gibbs as much as they’d have liked. With fullbacks often dragged wide and wingers following runners on the outside rather than staying in a structured shape, halfspaces are surprisingly easy to exploit against Arsenal but Elneny’s intelligence stopped that becoming much of a problem for the Gunners on Saturday afternoon. Credit has to be given to Wenger as well, who had Ramsey playing extremely narrow in defence and Elneny alongside Coquelin on the other side, offering Arsenal more compactness in the middle than is often the case.
Despite an early period of dominance, Spurs created just one real chance but David Ospina was equal to Erik Lamela’s shinned effort from a low Kyle Walker cross.
As the first half progressed, Arsenal became calmer on the ball and Elneny was important in that regard. Looking very relaxed and loose, he generally took the ball in his stride and moved it along again with just one or two touches. In just over 70 minutes on the pitch, 25 passes were played to the Egyptian on Saturday afternoon. Of those, 16 came from his defenders or his deeper midfield partner, Francis Coquelin. Trusted on the ball as Arsenal attempted to play from the back, he quickly moved play on and completed 23 of 27 passes in Arsenal’s tricky first half. The Gunners rode an early storm but Elneny was making himself available constantly, keeping the ball moving and looking to receive it again to help out teammates. In recent months, this has been a huge problem for the team (analysis here), but Elneny could yet be the remedy we hoped he would be in January.
Moving the ball quickly is a far more effective way of beating a pressing side than being able to dribble through them. As well all know, Cazorla is terrific on the ball but his predilection for dribbling when under pressure rather than shifting it to a nearby player quickly can land him trouble against good pressing systems (see Tottenham away last season, Liverpool and Tottenham at home this season, Bayern away this season). Paired with Francis Coquelin and asked to take the burden of build up play on his own, this wasn’t always the Spaniard’s fault but Arsenal have lacked balance when relying entirely on him to start attacks and move possession forward. He’s a superb dribbler, there’s no doubt, but the ball moves quicker than any player can and playing it with a good tempo is the best way to avoid a press.
The 2-2 on Saturday didn’t really see Arsenal control possession at any point but suggested that Elneny would be comfortable if that is required of him soon. So: how will Arsenal use him from now on?
One option is to play the same way as Saturday afternoon, but that presents the same issues as pairing Coquelin and Cazorla, where one is asked to take charge of almost all of the play on the ball from deep. This is a problem when other sides know exactly who you will use to get the ball moving and probably requires Aaron Ramsey to play wide so he can be an auxiliary central midfielder again (it’s unfortunate Arsenal don’t have another player for that role, but we can save that discussion for another day).
So the other option is to partner Elneny with Ramsey. Back in 2012 and 2013 – the years Mikel Arteta had working legs – Arsenal would use their Spanish maestro to control tempo like Elneny did on Saturday while covering ground defensively with his smart positioning like Coquelin does. He wasn’t asked to be athletic or adventurous like Elneny was occasionally at White Hart Lane, but he did the job of Coquelin as well as most of Elneny’s work. That, in turn, allowed Aaron Ramsey to flourish.
After losing all stability and adjusting immediately after Francis Coquelin’s red card on Saturday, the midfield grew into the game again with Elneny partnered by Ramsey. Down to 10 men and suddenly chasing the game, they didn’t have long together before Wenger introduced Olivier Giroud but in that small period after going 2-1 down the Gunners looked fairly resolute. Whether or not Elneny can protect the halfspaces as the most defensive midfielder in a pair (and a pair, not a midfield which ostensibly has three central players when defending) remains to be seen and would probably require a much more conservative wide player than Arsenal currently possess, but it certainly seems worth a try.
Notably, Ramsey played almost as many passes per match as Arteta in the 2013/14, all while offering great defensive work and an attacking presence. If Elneny is considered good enough to assume the Arteta role, Ramsey could yet partner him again.
Now I don’t expect that to happen anytime soon, now he has found it I imagine the boss will want to stick with the Coquelin-Elneny axis and see how they go. However, he finally appears to have a midfielder whose skillset is compatible with Ramsey’s again, and that shouldn’t be taken for granted.
It might be too late to crawl our way back to the top of the table, but find the right midfield balance soon and we might just have a chance. Give Elneny the opportunity to make Arsenal tick.