‘Honeymoon period’ is a hackneyed football cliché, but like most clichés, it contains at least a grain of truth. New signings experience a period of amnesty. Every good thing they do in a game draws a generous cheer while their mistakes are ignored or go unnoticed. After all, each player’s flaws only become apparent over time and familiarity can breed contempt, as Mark Twain noted. Expectations are often modest, especially in the case of low cost and hitherto unheralded players. Moreover, opponents are yet to suss them out and the new arrival feels the benefit of being an unknown quantity.
Arsenal’s January signing, Mohamed Elneny, has benefited from these very circumstances. Nevertheless, he has had a tangible positive effect on the team since making his first Premier League start at White Hart Lane in the North London Derby earlier this month. Given just how dysfunctional Arsenal’s midfield was between November and March, he was working from a fairly low base. This has helped the Egyptian through his settling period. The stilted partnerships of Aaron Ramsey alongside either Mathieu Flamini or Francis Coquelin meant that he didn’t have much to live up to.
Arsene Wenger described Elneny as a ‘stamina player’ in his first public comments on the player and this claim has been made out in recent performances. Elneny pressing Everton’s centre-backs in the 90th minute of Saturday’s match; his fourth full game in 11 days, was an impressive sight. In Arsenal’s return leg against Barcelona in the Camp Nou last week, he covered 12.85km. To put that in context, that was the most distance covered by any player on the pitch and a full 1.8km further than second-placed Jordi Alba.
Elneny is also a crisp passer of the ball, adept at starting counter attacks when Arsenal recover possession in their own half with simple but incisive forward passes. In his three Premier League appearances to date, he has completed 88% of his passes, and more impressively (and importantly for the team as we shall see) 71% of these passes were played forward. Though he has played in a box to box No.8 role, he has also shown good discipline. Elneny appears to possess the valuable knack of plugging gaps. In a team like Arsenal where individual freedom and rotation of positions is encouraged, it is vital that every player is aware of where they need to be depending on where their team-mates are. This seems; at least on the small sample size we have, to come naturally to Elneny.
In short, the Egyptian is a midfielder with sound technique, a fantastic engine, a strong emphasis on the collective good but not necessarily the most powerful or dynamic. A typical Arsenal player, you might say; a term that has been used as both a complement and a pejorative over the years. In this most curious of seasons however, Arsenal’s principal problem has been a lack of ‘typical’ Arsenal players in their team.
Amid all the blustery rhetoric about bottle, leadership, aggression, midfield destroyers and the like, the fact is that Arsenal have suffered from a lack of ball-playing midfielders. Every player who is capable of controlling the middle third of the pitch and keeping the ball (and crucially, play through a press) has been absent. Namely, Mikel Arteta, Jack Wilshere, Santi Cazorla and Tomas Rosicky. The ever-present Mesut Özil is the exception, though he operates in higher areas of the field.
Left behind was a group of direct, pedal to the metal types, capable of match winning moments but inept at controlling both tempo and territory in a match – namely Aaron Ramsey, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Theo Walcott, Joel Campbell and Alexis Sanchez. Mathieu Flamini falls into this category minus the match-winning moments. Francis Coquelin; a competent and athletic ball winner to be sure, is also particularly average at creating angles to receive passes from the centre-backs and build attacks.
The man who has suffered most from this midfield sclerosis is Aaron Ramsey, the club’s most complete central midfielder in the eyes of many supporters and indeed Arsene Wenger. However, he has a very specific skill set. His key strengths being his lung busting energy and incisive runs past the centre-forward where he is a genuine goal threat in the Frank Lampard canon. Ramsey requires a very specific midfield partner in order to flourish though.
The Welshman is a technical player but is not very comfortable receiving the ball under pressure in his own half. His frequent ventures forward also leave Arsenal’s sole holding player exposed with the width of the pitch to cover. So his partner needs to have sound defensive instincts, ideally some athleticism as well as being a metronomic passer of the ball who can receive the ball from the centre backs under opposition pressure.
Santi Cazorla can do the latter, but lacks the former. Coquelin can do the defensive work and brings athleticism but lacks the technical requirements. Mikel Arteta was an ideal partner for Ramsey, as Ramsey’s barnstorming Autumn of 2013 showed, but he has been put out to pasture. Flamini splits the difference and brings a modest dollop of both qualities, without convincing in either department.
Essentially, Arsenal’s squad does not contain a complementary partner for Aaron Ramsey and that is an indictment of Wenger’s recruitment policy. Reluctant to leave him out of the side, Wenger has played him on the right frequently over the last 12 months. He does a fine job there, but it is not where he wants to play. Confusingly, it is not really where Arsene Wenger envisages him either. He started Ramsey centre stage in the Community Shield and against West Ham United on the first day of the season before jettisoning the plan.
Mohamed Elneny therefore, is doing a sterling job until such a partner can be found. Alongside Francis Coquelin, Arsenal have a partnership with adequate defensive sturdiness but also with sufficient ball hoarding qualities due to Elneny’s composure and accuracy. The introduction of Alex Iwobi, who rarely wastes a pass, has also ameliorated this aspect of Arsenal’s play. Perhaps Aaron Ramsey’s next partner will be Mohamed Elneny. That role would test Elneny’s defensive nous far more; he has greater freedom and security alongside Coquelin. Arsenal fans would be intrigued to see how he coped with that particular examination.
Featured Image: All rights reserved by Emrah Partal.