Saturday, December 3, 2022

Mo Stability? Mo Problem

Few players can claim to have played a more significant role in Arsenal’s recent heart stopping victories over Chelsea and Manchester United than Mohamed Elneny. Arsenal are in a position where they require unlikely heroes and Elneny fits squarely into that category.

The score sheet has been littered with some of this less than likely lads across these two games as well. Few would have laid money down on an Eddie Nketiah brace at Stamford Bridge. Fewer still would have bet money on a poacher’s goal from Nuno Tavares inside three minutes against Manchester United.

I am sure not many would have backed Granit Xhaka to be the picture of maturity and focus with dominant performances in these two games. Though the characterisation of Xhaka is often slightly exaggerated, he does have a tendency to explode, it’s true, but he doesn’t blow up often it’s just that when he does, it tends to be spectacular.

For the most part, he is a very steady performer. However, against Chelsea and Manchester United he was more than steady. With Thomas Partey sidelined, Arsenal needed an extra 10% from the Swiss and they are getting it with some change.

Injuries have robbed the team of several of its pillars. Losing both senior full-backs would greatly impact pretty much every team in the league bar those run by nation states. It’s not just the fact that deploying back-ups robs of you of quality, in Arsenal’s case, it has really taken away their defensive stability.

Nuno Tavares is exciting but raw, to say the least. I would describe his playing style as “abandoned shopping trolley careering down a hill towards a dual carriageway.” For better and for worse, the results will always be spectacular.

Cedric Soares is a decade Nuno’s senior but often just as jittery and raw as his compatriot. With a pair of full-backs repeatedly bashing F1 every time they get the ball, Arsenal’s defence has lost stability. It is no coincidence that Gabriel and Aaron Ramsdale, for example, look comparatively out of form. They are walking a tripwire in gale force winds.

Another of Arsenal’s central pillars, Alex Lacazette, has also come out of the team recently though that hasn’t exactly proved to be an issue with Nketiah performing well in his stead. Lacazette lost form well before COVID caught up with him.

No Partey, no Lacazette and a pair of full-backs who don’t know where the brake pedal is has led to some chaotic, helter skelter games. Among this sea of chaos and acceleration, sometimes you need a sprinkle of dependability and predictability.

Sometimes you just need a slice of peanut butter on toast and a cup of warm milk. In this framework, Mohamed Elneny has become the hero that Arsenal needs right now. There is a time and place for milk and toast. It is not every day of the week but if you’ve been caning the cooked breakfasts and the tequila slammers, sometimes the digestive system needs a break.

This does not mean that we, as a fan base, have collectively misjudged the player. We have not. This is not so much about Mo Elneny taking a stride towards the team it’s about the team taking a stride towards him. He is exactly the steady but unspectacular back up player we sized him up as early in his Arsenal career.

The Elneny window is slender. I would argue that if you are leading away from home by a single goal with ten minutes remaining and you’re withstanding a torrent of pressure, Elneny is exactly the substitute you should be reaching for. He is a player for a very specific set of circumstances.

It is why he has often shone in big games for Arsenal across his career, where his uncomplicated style is suited. He won’t win you a game but he’ll help you not to lose it. As far as Arsenal’s season goes, “leading by a single goal away from home with ten minutes remaining” is exactly where they are.

Mikel Arteta has been absolutely correct to award minutes to Albert Sambi Lokonga ahead of Elneny across the season. Lokonga is the future and Elneny is very much not, his contract expires in the summer and the time will be right for him to move on.

However, at this moment in time, we are in the adult part of the season and the team is lacking adults. Sitting out the next few games will not have an enormous impact on Lokonga’s trajectory and, besides, if Arsenal have Champions League football next season, that will serve his development far better than playing every minute in an end of season collapse.

Sometimes, when you get to April and May, expediency is required. Elneny’s security is his brand but he also has an off the ball intensity that is very useful to the team. Witness what happens just before Granit Xhaka’s rocket against United.

Elneny squeezes up on Fernandes and forces him to miscontrol the ball, which Xhaka collects and fires into the corner. Again, it’s not a virtuoso effort from Elneny to get that ball to his midfield partner but it was what was required. Xhaka has stepped into the role of Batman this week and Elneny has proved a more than capable Robin. He’s not the hero we need in the long-term but he’s the hero we need right now.

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