PEOPLE

Elneny effect helps Gunners turn up heat

Mohamed Elneny (left), Arsenal's new €10 million (S$15.42 million) signing, gets the better of Burnley's Sam Vokes in the Gunners' 2-1 win in the fourth round of the FA Cup on Saturday.
Mohamed Elneny (left), Arsenal's new €10 million (S$15.42 million) signing, gets the better of Burnley's Sam Vokes in the Gunners' 2-1 win in the fourth round of the FA Cup on Saturday. PHOTO: REUTERS

LONDON • 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," says the midfielder, who made his Arsenal debut in the holders' 2-1 FA Cup fourth-round win over Burnley on Saturday.

"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 become 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 €10million (S$15.42 million) signing had little time for school.

STREET SMART

As a kid, I often played for 10 hours on the street. I think that's when I learned to run and run without a break.

''MOHAMED ELNENY, the Egyptian player who made his Arsenal debut on Saturday.

"As a kid, I often played for 10 hours on the street," he 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.

It was the same story in this season's Europa League, in which the Egypt international had helped what is now his former club reach the last 32.

Arsenal 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 21/2 seasons at the club, he had a total of four.

He 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's English improved and his integration was fast-tracked.

He 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.

He 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.

As he begun the latest phase of his career on Saturday, 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. He 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.

THE GUARDIAN

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 01, 2016, with the headline 'Elneny effect helps Gunners turn up heat'. Print Edition | Subscribe