Mohamed Elneny Shows his Value with Functional Performance against Cologne


Mohamed Elneny isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. There’s not a lot of flash to his game, and many of his passes are simply short balls designed to tick over possession. He doesn’t dribble much and he doesn’t have the kind of raw pace and power that observers tend to enjoy, but even without all of those things, there’s a kind of unfussy efficiency to the tireless midfielder’s approach.

He runs and runs, receives the ball and moves it onto someone else, all the while displaying a keen sense of positioning that makes up for his lack of speed. Normally, these things mean that his role isn’t so easy to get excited about, but against FC Cologne, he added a bit more to his play. Maybe the absence of Granit Xhaka gave him some added licence to ping long balls into more advanced areas on the field, or maybe he simply felt a little more confident playing in the UEFA Europa League. Regardless of the reason, though, the Egyptian offered something extra in the way of attack.

In addition to his typically crisp and near-flawless short passing, he hit 10 successful long balls. Some of these were switches of play to the onrushing wide defenders, and some of these were even more expansive than that again. In the lead-up to Arsenal’s opener, for instance, Elneny clipped a ball over the top of the Cologne defence. It allowed Theo Walcott, the Arsenal forward who was trying to break in behind, to latch onto it, and although the Englishman’s attempted cross was blocked, Sead Kolasinac arrived in the area to thump home the rebound.

Kolosinac’s volley was supreme, and will undoubtedly pinch all of the headlines, but Elneny’s understated role in the goal shouldn’t go unnoticed either. He meandered forward, provided an option and played a delightful ball into Walcott’s path. It wasn’t particularly awe-inspiring, but it isn’t Elneny’s job to be awe-inspiring. That’s left to guys like Alexis Sanchez who can hit curling thunderbolts into the back of the net from the edge of the area, as he did to give Arsenal a 2-1 lead against the Germans.

Elneny, meanwhile, is simply there to perform a functional role. His biggest assets are a combination of endurance running and simple passing efficiency, so despite the fact that he can hit the occasional long shot from range, as he did in the first half, his job is to make use of those major attributes to get things moving in the right direction. His match statistics are suggestive of this. 102 passes played, 96% completion and zero key passes.

That’s Elneny – low turnover numbers, high pass completion figures and very little in the way of flash in the final third. Many observers will argue that his statistics are bloated by his desire to keep it simple, as well as his desire to go backwards when he could go forwards by trying something trickier. That, however, fails to consider that he isn’t the man Arsene Wenger wants to be trying tricky passes. If he can pick someone out in between the lines, then that’s good, but if it’s a 50-50 proposition then Wenger would prefer he just keeps hold of the ball.

Some people might label that passing without a purpose, and when Arsenal are at their worst, they might even be right. When Elneny is going well, however, his straightforward approach allows those ahead of him to get into better positions. He probes sensibly, waiting for an opportunity for his teammates to find the required space. That can then enable them do something productive in attack, and that’s what Wenger wants.

If there are too many players trying to do too much, that invariably leads to a lack of control. This was at times apparent as Cologne broke forward on the counter-attack against the Gunners, and having someone like Elneny, who mopped up on a number of occasions to claim 4 tackles by the end of the match, is important.

Of course, against Cologne, he did exactly what his job stipulates. Arsenal were poor in the first half and didn’t do a good enough job of getting players in between the lines, but Elneny went about his business in typical fashion. He and his teammates then lifted after half-time to secure victory, and Elneny even showed that he can do more than simply hit tiki-taka-esque short passes. His long passes, usually left to Xhaka, were well-weighted and well-positioned, and even though these more aggressive balls tend to come outside of his duties, it would be nice to see him try them a little more often.

He has a challenge ahead of him to get back into the Arsenal first-team for league matches – he hasn’t played since the Premier League opener against Leicester – but this kind of display highlighted his value to Wenger. His long balls added just a touch of mustard to the efficiency he typically brings to the table, and in certain matches against certain opposition, when a level of control that Aaron Ramsey doesn’t offer is required, he will be the mix to provide that.

He won’t steal the limelight with that style of play, but form can’t always come ahead of function, and Elneny is the kind of athlete who can provide the function to facilitate the form.