Since Mohamed Elneny signed a new one-year contract in May, he has been denied a genuine opportunity to prove Arsenal made the right decision.
Elneny was an unused substitute in their first three games of this season, before he started in the 2-1 victory over Fulham on August 27. Despite playing for the full 90 minutes that day, he suffered a “significant” hamstring injury.
The Egypt international midfielder returned from two months out last night as Arsenal wrapped up their Europa League group campaign with a 1-0 win over FC Zurich. Mikel Arteta’s side struggled to break down their Swiss visitors, who had conceded 15 goals in their previous five matches in the competition, but Kieran Tierney’s goal secured them top spot in Group A.
Arsenal’s dominant start is rewarded 🔴
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They finish two points above PSV Eindhoven, which means they avoid the February play-offs against teams who have dropped down from the Champions League, and progress straight to the round of 16 in March.
9 – Arsenal have won all nine of their home games in all competitions this season, their best winning run from the start of a campaign since 2009-10 (first 11). Stronghold.
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Elneny demonstrated at the Emirates Stadium why he still has a vital role to play.
After Arteta called their performance away to PSV last Thursday “extremely poor,” and questions were raised about the drop-off in quality between the starting XI and the reserves, Elneny has come back at a key time to help bridge that gap.
He might not be as spectacular as Thomas Partey in the central defensive midfield role, but he does offer consistency and reliability.
In the fourth minute against Zurich, Gabriel Magalhaes pushed up towards the halfway line to challenge Cheick Conde for a header. Gabriel lost it, which allowed Tosin Aiyegun to race through and threaten to expose Arsenal in the transition. But Elneny had spotted the danger early, dropped off to cover his team-mate and forced Tosin into losing the ball.
A few moments later, he exchanged first-time passes with Fabio Vieira and Reiss Nelson, before spinning away from Jonathan Okita and changing the direction of the attack.
Sitting two points clear of Manchester City in the Premier League after winning 10 of their opening 12 matches, makes it easy to forget that Arsenal possess one of the youngest squads in the division. At 31, Elneny can provide some extra experience that might help them get over the line in difficult situations.
Towards the end of last season, he played an important role in victories over Chelsea and Manchester United and it would not be a surprise if he was called off the bench at Stamford Bridge on Sunday to provide extra protection. He lasted until the 63rd minute against Zurich, when he was replaced by Partey, and Arsenal looked unbalanced and more vulnerable after he departed.
“He was really good,” Arteta said. “Obviously he has been out for eight weeks, but we expected him to be out for 12 weeks. But he had an amazing recovery. He’s the kind of guy who has been pushing everybody around the training ground to be ready as quickly as possible and he competed really well.”
Elneny’s return removes some of the pressure on Partey, and can help Albert Sambi Lokonga to flourish. Nearly 18 months after the Belgium Under-21 international joined the club from Anderlecht, he is still struggling to find a role. Being partnered with Elneny in midfield here allowed him to push higher up on the left in support of Eddie Nketiah and Tierney. Remoulding the 23-year-old as an offensive midfielder who can break the lines with his passes appears to be the long-term idea.
“Everybody took the opportunity,” Arteta said. “It’s true that we played (Lokonga) more (advanced) in pre-season, when we signed him we had another idea. But in pre-season he did the job and played well in that position and having Mo back and having to rest Thomas it was a good option.”
Elneny masks some of the problems and concerns around Arsenal’s fringe players, but they still made it needlessly difficult for themselves against the Swiss champions, who have experienced a downward spiral in form this campaign and are bottom of their domestic league table with a single win from 14 games.
Vieira missed two great opportunities to score in the first half while Nketiah was guilty of poor decision-making.
Nelson showed flashes of the brilliance he provided in the 5-0 victory over Nottingham Forest on Sunday, but was wasteful too. There was one moment in the first half where he produced a gorgeous piece of skill to wriggle away from Zurich’s midfielders, yet ruined that hard work with a sloppy pass towards Lokonga that got intercepted.
What was more worrying, however, was Takehiro Tomiyasu clutching and rubbing the back of his hamstring less than 15 minutes after coming off the bench.
The Japan international has started at left-back in the last four Premier League matches after taking time to fully recover from a persistent calf issue in pre-season.
Tomiyasu did not even try to continue and was quickly replaced by Cedric Soares.
Tierney’s impressive performance against Zurich means he will be expected to play against Chelsea this weekend, but it is a shame Tomiyasu’s chances of representing his country at the World Cup, now less than two weeks away, are now in doubt.
(Main image: Elneny could help the likes of Lokongi, No 23, flourish in midfield. Photo: Stuart MacFarlane/Arsenal FC via Getty Images)
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