Mohamed Elneny would be a perfect buy for Arsenal from Basel
With Arsenal closing in on the signing of Mohamed Elneny, it bears remembering what happened in December 2011. Mamdouh Abbas, president of Egyptian club Zamalek, was asked about the potential transfer of Mohamed Salah from El Mokawloon. "I don't want him because he is undisciplined and has a big ego. I like Mohamed Elneny much better. He has a bright future ahead of him," he said.
Quite naturally, that statement wasn't taken too seriously by fans and media, who laughed at Abbas. Salah was everyone's darling, the ultimate rising star of Egyptian football. He was prolific at the 2012 Olympic Games in London, scoring three goals as Egypt reached quarterfinals, while Elneny was quietly doing less glamorous work in defensive midfield. That was also the view at Basel, where the duo started their respective European careers.
Salah was signed by the Swiss champions as a top prospect in the summer of 2012. His close friend Elneny arrived six months later on a short-term loan, and fans initially assumed that he was only there to help the winger settle in the new surroundings. In reality, it was the other way round. Salah -- bold and extroverted -- didn't really need assistance, whereas Elneny -- shy and introverted -- felt extremely insecure.
"When I first joined Basel, my dominant feeling was fear," Elneny recalled in an interview to Aargauer Zeitung. "I was only there on trial, and had significant doubts whether I could convince the president and the sporting director to give me a contract. When the coach Murat Yakin used me in almost every game, I was the happiest person in the world."
Eventually, Elneny signed a four-year contract in the summer of 2013 when Basel took up their option in the loan agreement, but he continued to be considered Salah's sidekick for a while. The midfielder only spoke Arabic, and thus used his friend as a translator whenever he wanted to say something. On the pitch, Salah did all the talking as well. He caught the imagination with his speed, trickery and dribbling skills, and always seemed to be in the spotlight; Elneny rarely, if ever, did anything spectacular at all.
Their contrasting personalities became even more apparent when Basel were drawn against Maccabi Tel-Aviv in the Champions League qualifying playoffs in August 2013. Salah caused a massive political controversy, announcing that he refused to play in Israel. He was later persuaded to go, but refused to shake hands with their opponents in both fixtures and dedicated the goal he scored in Tel Aviv to the Palestinian cause.
As for Elneny, he just quietly went about his business, taking part in both games without any problems, and playing twice against Maccabi Tel Aviv again in the same competition this very August. "I don't talk about politics", he remarked last year, refusing to share his thoughts on the complicated situation in Egypt as well. The midfielder is only focused on football and won't be drawn into any scandal.
With Salah moving to Chelsea in January 2014, some expected Elneny to struggle at Basel without his ally. But the opposite happened. The midfielder opened up, started learning English in order to communicate with players and coaches, and his play gradually improved as well. Elneny managed to persuade Basel fans that he is a star in his own right. He might never be as eye-catching as Salah, but that doesn't mean he is less important. In fact, one could argue that Elneny is a more complete player, and he is certainly much more consistent.
Football has always been Elneny's obsession, ever since his father, who used to be a coach, forced him to sleep with the ball in a bid to forge a connection. While not the most naturally talented kid in the neighbourhood, he worked hard to improve his skills, fighting for every ball and running a lot. Such stamina became his trademark at Basel: he covered 23 kilometers in the games against Real Madrid and Liverpool in the Champions League last season -- much more than anyone else on the field.
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"Running is part of my job, and I like to be in motion," Elneny said in the Aargauer Zeitung interview. "As a child, I often played for 10 hours on the street, and that's where I learned to run nonstop in the heat. I have to help the team with my strengths. When my teammates see me running, they run more themselves as well."
Covering a lot of ground is definitely not Elneny's only asset. He is excellent at ball distribution; orchestrating the play from behind. The Egyptian might not be sending Andrea Pirlo-style through balls every five minutes, but he very rarely misplaces his passes, and sometimes it is much better to keep things simple. Paulo Sousa, who coached Elneny at Basel last season before moving on to Serie A, claimed: "His nonchalance is his strength. He is happy to be right in the game, and he still has a lot of room for improvement."
Sousa, one of the best central midfielders of his generation who won the Champions League with Juventus and Borussia Dortmund in the 1990s, was right.
This season, Elneny took another step forward in his development and started shooting from long distances much more frequently. Having scored just four times in his first 30 months at Basel, he has found the net five times in all competitions already this season, including two majestic strikes against Sousa's Fiorentina in Europa League. His long-range passing has also improved dramatically.
Another quality that should not be overlooked is that Elneny is a very fair player for his position. He likes to tackle and wins a lot of balls, but commits few fouls. He has never been sent off in his entire career, which is impressive for a defensive midfielder.
Quietly but steadily, Elneny has become the fan favourite at Basel. He is now the team's best midfielder, leading by example but keeping his feet on the ground. "I am not a star, but rather a normal person. It is dangerous to feel like a star," he told Aargauer Zeitung. That doesn't mean he is not allowed to think big. Barcelona has always been his favourite team, and the Egyptian has long dreamed of playing in the Premier League as well. Now, it looks like Arsenal are going to make that dream come true.
Elneny is not a household name yet, but Arsenal should be excited about the potential of their possible new acquisition. They would be getting a modest, hard-working fighter, who possesses a remarkable range of skills and is ready to improve further in more demanding surroundings. Already at the age of 23 he is vastly experienced, with 37 matches in European competitions under his belt in just three years. He is no longer fearful -- he oozes self-confidence. At a reported price of about £5 million, that looks a very good deal.
It's easy to say that Elneny is likely to make a much more lasting impression in London than Salah did at Chelsea. The winger -- who made just a handful of appearances before moving to Fiorentina on loan, then Roma permanently this summer -- is a wayward genius, able to produce incredible performances that brought comparisons with Roberto Baggio in Florence last season. And yet, his coaches never really know what to expect of him on any given day.
With Elneny, Wenger would be certain of total dedication and commitment. That is what Abbas meant in 2011, and nobody will laugh at his words these days. On the contrary, they sound prophetic.
Michael Yokhin is an experienced European football writer who contributes to ESPN, Blizzard, Champions and FourFourTwo. Follow him on Twitter: @Yokhin