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Who is El-Nenny and how would he suit the Gunners?
Recently, Swiss, English and Egyptian newspapers have flooded with reports that Arsenal have agreed a fee with FC Basel for Egyptian international Mohamed El-Nenny. With the prospect of another Egyptian making the trip from Switzerland to London, KingFut editor Michael Saad profiles the 23-year-old Egyptian midfielder’s career thus far and analyzes how he might fit in at Arsenal.
El-Nenny’s story is interesting as he was never really a star in Egypt. Like former FC Basel star and current AS Roma forward Mohamed Salah, El-Nenny started his professional career at Arab Contractors, a smaller club with a relatively successful local scouting network, after leaving Al Ahly’s youth team at the age of 16. He spent two seasons at Arab Contractors, becoming a regular starter for his team in the 2010/2011 season. Unluckily for him during his second season as a regular starter, the tragic Port Said disaster occurred and the Egyptian Premier League stopped amidst an unsettling political situation. At that time, El-Nenny’s name was becoming much more familiar to Egyptian fans and he was linked with a move to Cairo giants Al Ahly and Zamalek. Swiss league club FC Basel scouts however were able to take advantage of the situation. With the local league halted and Egyptian footballers without regular competition, it was not that hard for FC Basel to convince the player to join the Swiss club. El-Nenny signed a loan deal alongside Mohamed Salah and the pair began a successful journey of development in Switzerland.
Since then, Mohamed Salah immediately filled the void left by Xherdan Shaqiri’s transfer to Bayern Munich and constantly dominated headlines for the Swiss club with his electric pace and a steady return of goals. His development has seen him transfer to Chelsea, loaned out to Fiorentina and now finally settled with Serie A contenders AS Roma.
In contrast, El-Nenny continues to make strides forward in Switzerland in a midfield position that certainly earns less praise than a forward’s but also where you cannot hide. With that said, his continual improvement deserves similar mention.
Mohamed El-Nenny came to Switzerland as a rather raw talent but what continues to be his outstanding attribute is his stamina and energy. During his time with Sky Sports, Gary Neville did a segment on Monday Night Football questioning why Arsène Wenger strayed away from a recruitment policy in the mould of Patrick Vieira, Emmanuel Petit and Gilberto Silva. Mohamed El-Nenny can’t claim to be a bulky, towering midfield pivot, but he possesses other physical qualities to compensate. Despite standing at a rather average height and build, the midfielder has never had a problem working in the engine room as he is able to cover a lot of ground and is constantly seen finishing a game stronger than others from the 75th to the 90th minute. In last season’s Champions League, he was one of only four players to cover over 80 km after 7 games. His injury record is also quite impressive which will come as a relief to Arsenal fans. He is a robust athlete who is constantly available for Basel which hopefully translates positively to England’s tough schedule.
Having started his career at a rather young age, the midfielder has also benefited from being a regular starter at FC Basel and has plenty of experience under his belt. El-Nenny is approaching 100 league appearances for the Swiss champions and 40 appearances for the Egypt national team. This know-how in addition to his ability to marshall the field without fading has bridged his confidence to new levels recently and allows him the comfort to compete at a high level in the Champions League. The midfielder fared quite well against Liverpool and a star-studded Real Madrid last season when they were drawn in the same group. In fact, Basel were able to qualify to the Round of 16 in European competition at the expense of the Merseyside club, and the Egyptian anchored the midfield for all 6 matches.
Despite this, the Egyptian’s settling into the Gunners’ midfield will depend on two key areas.
El-Nenny is a reliable passer of the ball and boasts a passing percentage of 92.4% in the Europa League this season according to WhoScored. However it has to be said that there is room for improvement technically if he is to be fit in a midfield trio with midfielders like Santi Cazorla and Mesut Özil. Arsenal boasts one of the silkiest midfields in Europe and their world-class players possess the ability to both dribble and pass the ball out of immense pressure through intelligent movement and cohesion. Wenger often cites that transfer targets need to be of extraordinary quality in order to improve on his current squad, however the Frenchman is also known for spotting talent that can be polished and nurtured to reach new heights. Without a doubt, El-Nenny will have to find that extra gear in his touch, composure on the ball and distribution in order to impose himself in the starting line-up regularly, but he has the right environment and the perfect manager behind him to see him reach those goals. El-Nenny is a player that seems to be able to play up to the ability of those around him. He will improve quickly and benefit immensely from training regularly at London Colney.
Plainly put, the fact that El-Nenny has found himself amongst the goals this season, especially at club level, could be a problem for the Egyptian unless he understands his role quickly.
“I’ve noticed how important shooting is for midfield players, which made me give it more attention during training,” explained the 23-year-old to an Egyptian news outlet this year.
With Coquelin injured and no other player who quite fills his shoes, the position that Arsène Wenger needs filled most urgently is that of a defensive midfielder. Although I believe it unwise to focus too much on comparing players, it’s hard not to notice the similarity between Aaron Ramsey and the Egyptian. The Welshman’s goalscoring success in the 2013/2014 season clearly still plays on his mind and spurs him to use his great stamina to get forward and score goals. Similarly, El-Nenny’s recent success with long-distance shots and late-runs into the box will have to be managed and tailored to Wenger’s vision of his role. Just as Francis Coquelin had to completely simplify his game by excelling at interceptions, tackles and neat distribution in order to break into the Arsenal midfield, El-Nenny will have to recognize his strong attributes and showcase them in exceptional fashion to continue being a regular starter. He has already been asked to play this role under Héctor Cúper in the national team. With the Pharaohs almost always playing with two traditional number “9” strikers in a 4-4-2 formation, and wingers Kahraba and Omar Gaber given license to get forward and provide service from wide areas, Cúper often asks El-Nenny and a midfield partner to sit deep and compensate to the defensive balance of the team. This is El-Nenny’s opportunity to play this role at a higher standard in the English Premier League and the Champions League.
Arsène Wenger is known to be hesitant to do his transfer business early, especially in the January transfer window. However, following the painful week that saw the established midfield pair of Francis Coquelin and Santi Cazorla sustain long-term knee injuries, Mikel Arteta’s inability to stay fit as well as the continued absence of Jack Wilshere, Wenger may see qualities in El-Nenny that can fill the void in the heart of the Gunners’ midfield.