It’s easy to think Mohamed Elneny is a limited player. Arsene Wenger has a curious knack of pushing expedient options into Arsenal’s most defensive midfield role, even if they aren’t initially purchased or naturally equipped for it, and after Francis Coquelin’s exit in January that is where the Egyptian international has found his game-time for the Gunners.
It’s not a position that particularly showcases Elneny’s talents, especially when remembering his Arsenal career began with a stunning goal versus Barcelona in the Champions League. While some have commended his work-rate and discipline, his performances thus far have been divisive – those unimpressed finding him a passive presence in the engine room. His primary role has been simply to sit behind Arsenal’s more cavalier central midfielders while getting the ball to them as frequently as possible, and it has inevitably lead to questions over his impact on this side.
But the late stages of Arsenal’s Europa League clash with CSKA Moscow on Thursday night showed that Elneny can bring much more to the team. The Russian outfit scored twice to leave Arsenal facing the same exit scenario as Barcelona against Roma two evenings previous, eliminated on away goals at 4-4, which inspired a crucial change in formation from Arsene Wenger. Jack Wilshere came off for Calum Chambers, and the 3-4-3 pushed Elneny further forward – modifying his role from Arsenal’s anonymous anchorman to a box-to-box that would have to burst into more offensive spaces in the middle of the park.
Shortly after, the substitution proved a masterstroke as Elneny stepped forward to the edge of the box and set up Danny Welbeck for the goal that essentially secured Arsenal’s place in the semi-finals. The England international tricked his way past a defender before laying off to the 25-year-old, who returned the favour with a splicing pass that took three CSKA Moscow players out of the game and left Welbeck the relatively simple task of curling beyond the goalkeeper from close range.
That goal came on the 75th minute, and in stoppage time Elneny completed his brace of setups. As CSKA pushed for an unlikely two goals to flip the tie on its head, the 5 foot 11 ace drove forward from midfield, sucked one defender towards him and passed beyond another, Aaron Ramsey latching onto the through ball with a perfectly-timed run to leave the Russian outfit’s backline trailing in his path. The Welshman dispatched, putting the second leg scoreline to 2-2.
It was a reminder how roles and positions can sometimes define our opinions of players, despite them actually being capable of giving much more to the team. Thursday’s performance showed Elneny can be more than a mere baby sitter for Arsenal’s ill-disciplined midfield options; the problem though, is that nobody else in Wenger’s squad can really be depended on to fulfil those duties – with Granit Xhaka struggling in that regard, Elneny finds himself at the engine room’s base as much by default as design.