Arsenal complete signing of Mohamed Elneny from Basel
Egyptian is a durable €10 million addition to Arsene Wenger’s injury-plagued midfield
Arsenal’s new signing Mohamed Elneny: Photograph: Getty
The idea was that Mohamed Elneny should become at one with the ball. It came from his father, who was a youth-team coach at Baladeyet Al-Mahalla in Egypt, and it was put into practice when Elneny was very young.
“I remember that my father demanded that I went to bed with the ball,” Elneny says. “He said: ‘You have to connect with the ball.’ He started coaching me when I was three years old. His biggest wish was that I became a professional footballer.”
The subliminal approach was a novel touch but Elneny has fired the journey that has taken him through the ranks of Egyptian football to Basel in Switzerland and now Arsenal with a remarkable single-mindedness.
The north London club’s new €10m signing, confirmed by Arsène Wenger after Wednesday night’s draw at Liverpool, had little time for school and he would meet up with friends to have kickarounds that he never wanted to end. “As a kid, I often played for 10 hours on the street,” Elneny says. “I think that’s when I learned to run and run without a break.”
Elneny, 23, has the lung capacity of a long-distance athlete. In last season’s Champions League, up until the last 16, which was when Basel were eliminated by Porto, no other player had covered more ground and it has been the same story in this season’s Europa League, in which the Egypt international has helped what is now his former club reach the last 32.
Arsenal are getting something that they badly need: another body in central midfield to ease their injury stretched ranks, and this one comes with durability stamped all over it.
They are also getting a mind that has become attuned to the nuances of the defensive midfield role and, more recently, has added more forward-thinking accoutrements. In the first half of the season, Elneny scored five goals for Basel in all competitions; across his previous two and a half seasons at the club, he had a total of four.
Elneny went to Basel in January 2013 from El Mokawloon in Egypt, initially as a nervous trialist – “I had one over-riding feeling: fear,” he has said – but, having impressed, he earned a six-month loan deal. He was quiet and shy, and everyone in Basel at the time remembers him as living in the shadow of his great friend Mohamed Salah.
Salah, who had joined Basel from El Mokawloon in the summer of 2012, was outgoing and confident, always talking and joking. Elneny spoke only in Arabic and Salah acted both as his translator and big brother-style chaperone.
Elneny did enough to win a four-year contract at the end of the season, with Basel paying €800,000 for him, but it was, paradoxically, after Salah left for Chelsea in January 2014 that he emerged from his shell. Elneny was forced to talk directly to the people at the club; his English improved and his integration was fast-tracked. His English is now very good.
Elneny started to speak more on the pitch, too, and he became more of a presence. At first, he had been a no-risk kind of player, routinely looking square or backwards from his position as the more defensive midfielder in a 4-2-3-1 formation. But as the first receiver of the ball from the defence, he began to demonstrate his ability to provide a platform for the team to play with simple and urgent passes.
Elneny is no muscular enforcer, rather an intelligent reader of the game, who knows when to hold and when to intercept. He is the ultimate team player, a manager’s dream because of his work-rate and lack of ego, and he has grown, particularly this season, in which he has been Basel’s best player.
The club have replaced him with Alexander Fransson, a 21-year-old Swede from IFK Norrkoping, and the fee that they have received from Arsenal is substantial for them. Yet there is no escaping the feeling that they are gutted to lose him.
Elneny draws strength from his family and his faith. Married with a young son and a baby on the way, he is a devout Muslim, who prays five times a day. He takes his prayer mat on away trips and he observes Ramadan strictly.
“Allah decided that I was going to be a footballer and that I was going to sign for Basel,” Elneny said, in an interview with Aargauer Zeitung last year. “When it comes to making decisions, I listen to him. If there is at some point an offer from another club, and Allah tells me not to go, I won’t go. And the same goes for the other way around.”
Elneny is not the type to attract unwanted publicity away from the field or be distracted by the bright lights of the city. In Basel he lived in the tall residential tower that is part of the club’s St Jakob-Park stadium complex; his commute to work was via lift and escalator. And for an illustration of his cold-eyed focus, consider the episode at the start of the 2013-14 season, when Basel were drawn to play Maccabi Tel Aviv in the Champions League third qualifying round.
There was huge pressure in Egypt on Elneny and Salah not to play, and Salah sparked a political stir when he said that he would not travel with the squad to Israel. He would change his mind but he refused to shake hands with the Maccabi players before both ties. Elneny simply put his head down and got on with the job of being a footballer. He went through with the pre-match handshakes.
As Elneny prepares for the latest phase of his career, there is the inevitable concern about his lack of Premier League experience. But he has fared well in European ties for Basel against Liverpool, Chelsea and Tottenham Hotspur.
Those against Liverpool in the Champions League last season were the highlight. Elneny starred at Anfield in the final group fixture, when Basel got the draw they needed to qualify at Liverpool’s expense for the last 16 but the earlier tie at St Jakob-Park was as emotional for him.
It was the night that his father made a first trip over from Egypt to watch him and, after the famous 1-0 win, he was pictured hugging his son, with tears in his eyes. Elneny had another dream, which was to score with him in attendance. Two months ago, when his father came to a game in Basel for only the second time, Elneny scored the equaliser against Fiorentina in the Europa League.
The bond between father and son runs deep. They are ready to share further memorable moments.