This week is going to be dominated by the looming presence of the derby on Thursday so until then I’m going to try and write about other things. It’s not going to be easy, and I spent last night having anxiety dreams about the live event at Union Chapel next week (I couldn’t find the theme tune I’d made and then I forgot to put people’s names on the guest list and as I was adding names, James’ wife tricked me and said ‘Don’t forget Sandra Bullock’ so I wrote down Sandra Bullock and everyone laughed at me because why the hell would she be going to a live Arsenal podcast?).
It’s going to be a long week.
Let’s start this morning with an unlikely, but important, contributor to these last few weeks, Mohamed Elneny. The Egyptian has come in from the cold to play a really crucial role in midfield in the absence of Thomas Partey, and it really is in from the cold. The four 90 minutes he’s played make up 360 minutes of playing time, and until he started against Chelsea, he’d only played 171 minutes all season. His last Premier League start was the 3-2 defeat at Old Trafford back in early December.
He is a player for whom the lack of Europe contributed significantly to a lack of involvement. Earlier in the season, Albert Sambi Lokonga was preferred when Tomas Partey and Granit Xhaka had injury issues, those minutes were seen as developmental and will ultimately stand him in good stead. When Thomas Partey got injured, we asked a lot of Lokonga in the Brighton game, leaving him with too much to do when Xhaka was started at left back, and while I think he did fine against Southampton, it was easy to understand why Mikel Arteta plumped for the experience of Elneny with Chelsea and Man Utd on the horizon.
At a point in the season when you just don’t have time or games to make up for more mistakes, a player who can produce consistently is really important. I think the idea that Sambi has been a flop is way too harsh, and while I’ll acknowledge that other signings have become more regular than him, it’s too soon to be writing off a 22 year old central midfielder after one season in English football. However, it’s not easy to be sure about what kind of performance you’re going to get from a player of that age and in this stage of his career. There is fluctuation.
With Elneny, not so much. This thread below gives you an interesting insight into his time at Arsenal, but also his character, and I strongly think Mikel Arteta can identify with the kind of midfielder Elneny is, as well as his ability to carry out the instructions he’s given:
Mohamed Elneny on his Arsenal career, Arteta and his motivation pic.twitter.com/Z1YTKreTIS
— Gilles 🇳🇬🏴 (@_Grimanditweets) May 9, 2022
Is he going ever going to be a world beater? No. But not every player has to be. What he gives you is experience, intelligence, ball retention, and to his credit he has added a bit more in terms of forward passing because that’s part of what he’s in the team to do. We often think in short-term absolutes when it comes to players, and if you’d told me that when he loaned him out to Besiktas he’d be an Arsenal player a couple of seasons later helping us push for a top four place, I’d have been very dubious. Not least because of the very public way he was told he wasn’t wanted by Unai Emery.
I think there’s a lesson there for most of us. Football has ways of surprising you, no matter how many times you’ve been around the block or how convinced you are you’ve seen it all. I’m sure for the last couple of summers when I’ve done squad assessments or speculated on the future of players, I’ve said this is a guy whose time is probably up. But here we are, and speaking of time, David Ornstein has reported that we’ve opened up contract talks with Elneny.
Last week, the 29 year old said he’d be happy to stay, even though he’s aware he’s unlikely to be a first choice player, saying:
I always love a challenge and give 100 per cent all the time. I don’t decide who plays but I keep going in training to show how good I am and to make him play me.
If I don’t play I keep going until I get my chance. If Arsenal say ‘we want you’ I don’t think about leaving. It’s my family for six years. I love this club.
To me this makes a lot of sense. First of all, it’s probably going to be a relatively short deal, two years at most, perhaps even just one year with a one year option – and not one that is going to tie us down to an aging player on huge wages. Secondly, as I wrote a couple of weeks ago, there is going to be significant action in the Arsenal departure lounge in the summer, and we have to build a squad which is capable of dealing with the Premier League and Europe next season. Extending someone who is basically the perfect squad player is a no-brainer when you’ve got so much else to do, not least because it’s probably going to be a very uncomplicated negotiation.
It doesn’t preclude another midfield signing, and already there are names like Youri Tielemans being touted as potential arrivals, so Elneny staying doesn’t mean we can’t augment that area of the pitch further. It just gives us a measure of experience, security and depth that will be important as we go through periods of next season when we’re playing three games a week.
I know there are people out there who will view a contract extension for Elneny as lacking some ambition, rooting us in a past we want to get out of. For me though, while his contribution this season might be relatively small in comparison to other players, if we do get into next season’s Champions League, he will have played an important role at the most important part of the season in consigning that past to the dustbin. We also know very well that this is a manager who is ruthless when it comes to rooting out elements of the team that he feels don’t fit with what he wants to do, and if he sees a role for him next season then I’d trust his judgement on that.
Final thing: and it’s not a particularly incisive point, but when a player has been told by a club he can go, and he’s not in the plans, it’s quite rare for him to work his way back from that. When he’s barely played all season, it’s not always easy to come into a team under some real pressure and make such a positive contribution, and Elneny deserves real credit for his professionalism. We’re quick to take umbrage when a player doesn’t seem as committed as we would like, so when it’s the other way around, it’s behooves us to acknowledge that.
Right, that’s today done. Back tomorrow for (hopefully) more non-derby blog action.
Have a good one.