Arsenal fans have become accustomed to Arsene Wenger dallying interminably over addressing the needs of their club’s squad in the transfer market. This January, though, with a first Premier League title in 12 years in sight, he has acted with relative swiftness to address their most prominent weakness. There were still delays along the way, but on Thursday Arsenal confirmed the signing of Egypt international Mohamed Elneny for a reported fee of around £7.4 million from Basel.
At 23 years old, he has the potential to fill an immediate need, while developing into a player who can be a cornerstone of the team for the long term. Right now, it seems clear that his arrival has been spurred by an injury to Francis Coquelin. It appeared risky for Wenger to go into the season with Coquelin as his only convincing option as a defensive midfielder. After all, Coquelin had only emerged as a first-team player last January, meaning he had yet to play a full season in the Premier League.
Sure enough, at the end of November Coquelin went down with a knee injury that was scheduled to keep him out for three months. With captain Mikel Arteta now a long way past his prime, Elneny will likely be vying with Mathieu Flamini to line up alongside Aaron Ramsey in the center of midfield.
Elneny moved to Europe with Basel in January 2013 for a fee of 800,000 euros (£600,000), after coming through the ranks at Egyptian side El Mokawloon. As well as representing Egypt on 39 occasions, he has been a regular in a Basel side that has won the Swiss Super League title in each of his three seasons at the club. During that time he has also gained valuable European experience, with Basel reaching the Europa League semifinals and quarterfinals in his first two seasons before getting to the Champions League Round of 16 last term.
His statistics show that few players cover more ground than him during the 90 minutes. That ability will be welcome in an Arsenal midfield that has too often been outrun by their opponents. Yet it is also clear that Wenger sees him as more than just a stopper and an athlete in the middle.
“He’s a midfielder, a defensive midfielder who can contribute in an area where at the moment we are short,” he said in his press conference ahead of Arsenal’s trip to take on Stoke City on Sunday. “He’s as well a young promising player, who is already adapted to Europe. He’s not straight from Egypt to England, he has played three years in Switzerland. And I expect him to develop with us into a very strong player, because he has both sides of the game—he can defend and can attack, and that’s the way we want to play in midfield.”
In this season’s Europa League group stage, only one player averaged more than Elneny’s 92 passes per game, while his pass success rate also ranked up there with the competition’s best. Being able to play with the ball at feet has long been something Wenger desires in even his defensive-minded midfielders. And Elneny has developed the attacking side of his game this season, scoring five goals for Basel before his departure.
It means there is the potential for Elneny and Flamini, or, when he returns from injury, Coquelin and Elneny to line up together in midfield when a more solid center is required. Arsenal’s midfield options have also been reduced by long-term injuries to Santi Cazorla and Jack Wilshere. And, while Aaron Ramsey has stepped into the role admirably in recent weeks, his attacking instincts have meant Arsenal at times being overrun in the midfield, including against Liverpool on Wednesday.
But Wenger, the ultimate pragmatist in the transfer market, would not have signed Elneny if he was just a temporary stopgap during injury problems. Both Arteta and Flamini are the wrong side of 30 and are set to be out of contract in the summer. Elneny provides a younger, more durable option in an area where Arsenal have long been undermanned.
For the time being, Arsenal could get a first glimpse of their new signing as early as Sunday, when the Gunners will attempt to stay on top of the Premier League against Stoke.
“He is available for selection, I haven’t decided yet [whether I will play him],” he said. “I have to see how everyone has recovered. It’s a possibility that he is in the squad for Sunday.”