Following Arsenal’s $11 million capture of Egyptian midfielder Mohamed Elneny from FC Basel last week, many Gunners fans will be wondering what to expect from the central midfielder.
Elneny, 23, has excelled in Switzerland over the past three years and that led Arsene Wenger to snap him up for a relatively modest fee during the January window.
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The rangy midfielder was in Arsenal’s 18-man squad for their 0-0 draw at Stoke City last Sunday but didn’t get on so everyone is still waiting to get a glimpse of him in action.
This week I tracked down a man who knows Elneny better than most: former USMNT and Egypt coach, Bob Bradley. Bradley 57, is currently the head coach of French side Le Havre AC who are chasing promotion to France’s Ligue 1 and currently sit in third spot in France’s second-tier.
Bradley helped nurture Elneny from the youth teams into a full international as he appeared for Egypt’s U-23 side at the 2012 Olympics and has gone on to become an influential figure for the Pharaohs. The experienced American coach believes that Arsenal fans expecting Elneny to be only a true destroyer in central midfield will be pleasantly surprised.
“He is an all-round midfielder capable of playing different roles. He reads the game, he moves well and he can play a little bit deeper,” Bradley explained. “He’s an all-round midfielder who can play deeper when needed, he can move forward and shoot from distance but he’s not just a guy who stays in there and breaks up plays.”
Elneny is said to be smooth on the ball, has an impressive range of passing and can link defense and attack seamlessly. He sounds like a very Arsenal-esque acquisition and could complement Francis Coquelin rather than replace him. So the questions surrounding where he will slot in to this Arsenal side may have changed a little.
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However, one of the big question marks surrounding players who have played on the European continent but then arrive in England is: “can they handle the pace of the Premier League?”
“It is an adjustment for anybody but I think that his experience of playing against Premier League teams in the Champions League and Europa League is going to help,” Bradley said.
Dia El-Sayed, the coach of Egypt’s U-20 team while Bradley was in charge of the Pharaohs from 2011-13, played a huge role in the development of Elneny and his teammate at El Mokawloon El Arab Sporting Club and then at Basel, former Chelsea player Mohamed Salah. Under his tutelage Elneny, the boy from the small northern Egyptian town of El-Mahalla, grew into a man.
Around the time of Elneny’s emergence into the full Egyptian national team, the Port Said Massacre occurred in Feb. 2012 meaning that the Egyptian league was cancelled indefinitely amid the violent uprising against the government.
That meant the Egyptian players had nowhere to play, so Bradley often took his national team squad and several youngsters out of the country for trips to train and play friendlies in the likes of Abu Dhabi, Dubai, Tripoli and Lebanon ahead of 2014 World Cup qualifying. El-Sayed — someone who Bradley describes as his “brother” and said everything he achieved with the national team wouldn’t have been possible without the coach by his side — was instrumental in setting up those trips with plenty of his young stars making their way through under Bradley.
To start with Elneny was tentative, but the more Bradley saw him the more he liked him.
“When Elneny started he was still young, he was only 19, but you could see that he trained really well every day. In the training he was improving technically. You could tell how he worked and how he wanted to get better. Little by little he became an important part of our team,” Bradley said. “His passing got sharper. He started to improve his ability with long passes. He was always a player who didn’t hesitate to shoot from distance and at that time it wasn’t always that he was scoring a lot, but you could see all these starting points.”
With Salah heading to FC Basel in 2012, Elneny followed him in 2013 with Bradley speaking to the Swiss club direct (sporting director George Heitz to be exact) to help arrange the moves for his players who were still without regular action as the nationwide ban on professional soccer continued in Egypt. Those restrictions helped the likes of Salah and Elneny move to Europe and they haven’t looked back since.
“Salah went first to Basel and then at some point when I spoke to the people at Basel we mentioned Elneny,” Bradley said. “We said that he is a player who is on the way up. He trains hard, he is improving. They waited six months after Salah had gone and then were able to get him as they were both at the same team in Egypt, El Mokawloon El Arab Sporting Club. When he got to Basel it was over that time that he matured a little bit. He covers a lot of ground and can play a more defensive role, he is an all-round midfielder, has a good passing range and has ability to score from outside of the box. Most of all, I think he is still improving. The thing that was very good for him at Basel was the experience in Champions League and Europa League.”
With a few Egyptians flourishing in the PL for short periods of time in the past — Mido and Amir Zaki spring to mind, while Salah has spent two spells on loan before moving permanently to Roma from Chelsea — Bradley expects Elneny to grab the chance with both hands and revealed a little about his character and his journey to the Emirates Stadium from Egypt.
“Now is a great opportunity and I know how excited he is,” Bradley revealed. “His English — Salah went to Basel and learnt English quickly — he hasn’t learned as fast. But that will come. He is a good guy, he is married. And if you remember, there is a scene in American Pharaoh (PBS documentary on Bradley’s time coaching Egypt) when we were all together playing the final matches of World Cup qualifying Elneny’s wife gave birth to a son, Malik Mohamed Elneny. There is the scene in the documentary where we are all cutting the cake and all cheering for Elneny.
“You think about this young guy that Dia knew so well, he came into the national team and how he grew and we were obviously able to help with the move to Basel and how he has continued to improve. For Dia, myself, my coaching staff in Egypt and all the Egyptians, this is something that everyone feels very good about and we are excited for him to have his chance.”