In his interview on the signing of Mohamed Elneny, Arsène Wenger revealed three things of interest: that Arsenal were looking for a versatile midfielder, that Elneny's strengths are his technical level, vision and intelligence, and that Arsenal had been scouting Elneny for a year. In that sense, the scouting and technical team will be mindful of how Elneny has come on in the past year, as David Hynter, writing in the Guardian, describes:
At first, he had been a no-risk kind of player, routinely looking square or backwards from his position as the more defensive midfielder in a 4-2-3-1 formation. As the first receiver of the ball from the defence, however, he began to demonstrate his ability to provide a platform for the team to play with simple and urgent passes.
Both the statistics from this year's Europa League group stages and the eye test confirm that description. Elneny led Basel in passes per 90 minutes and in passing percentage, while also being nifty in tackling and intercepting and covering the most ground.
I watched Elneny in Basel's away tie with Fiorentina, where he played as Basel's holding midfield in a double pivot, while also watching highlights of him in other matches over the past 3 seasons. Basel quickly went 1-0 down against Fiorentina, conceding a goal that wouldn't look out of place from the Banter Era, in that it was a complete mess from the centre backs and goalkeeper. Rather than panicking, Basel eased their way back into the match, led by Elneny, who provided a platform for the side, keeping the ball circulating and enabling control. He also had a man marking role on Mati Fernandez, which continued into the second half when Michael Oliver sent Gonzalo Rodriguez off for a challenge on Breel Embolo. Five minutes later, Basel were level; Elneny played a smart ball to Luca Zuffi between the lines, who set up Birkir Bjarnason. Eight minutes later, Elneny scored the winner; a loose ball came to him about 30-yards from goal, and he struck a rocket into the top left corner.
However, it was not his goal that was most impressive; rather, it was the way he controlled the tempo after Fiorentina went down to 10. It can sometimes be difficult to play against 10 men when they are protecting a lead, because they have no interest in attacking. The way to break a team down, then, is to create space by moving defensive players around, which is done not just by passing forward. Elneny, like Mikel Arteta but unlike Santi Cazorla, understood this, and would switch play quickly and sharply, eventually opening up the space for Basel to equalise. His play under pressure was good; he has a good first touch that enables him to step away from pressure in the mould of Arteta or Cazorla, and like the two Spaniards, Elneny makes good decisions on the ball.
The other aspect of his play that was impressive was his movement off the ball, and how he showed for the ball from his centre backs. This is an area that Arsenal lack, with neither Flamini nor Coquelin proficient at receiving the ball from Per Mertesacker or Laurent Koscielny, which hampers Arsenal's ability to build attacks, especially when playing a team that presses, such as Liverpool last night. Elneny also takes up good defensive positions. He didn't have to do much for Basel when I saw him, but he stood in the right place, forcing when counter attack from a corner to go wide, away from goal, and also closed space well, allowing his midfield partner to press higher up the pitch as instructed. He is not the most physical player, but he is a good tackler, and, more importantly, a good reader of the game, meaning he can intercept and keep possession, rather than tackle and risk losing the ball or giving away a foul.
Elneny is a technically proficient player, who is intelligent and seems to understand instructions well, which speaks to his game intelligence. The hope for Arsenal is that he adapts to the physicality of the Premier League quickly, so he can give Arsenal the holding player they have desperately missed in the absence of Mikel Arteta.