A dramatic, pulsating north London derby ended in a 2-2 draw on Saturday at White Hart Lane, after Alexis Sanchez struck a late equaliser for 10-man Arsenal and kept their title hopes alive.
The Gunners took a first-half lead through Aaron Ramsey’s clever flick but Tottenham Hotspur struck twice in quick succession following Francis Coquelin’s sending off, with Toby Alderweireld and Harry Kane beating David Ospina. Spurs appeared to be heading for three points but Sanchez’s strike earned a share of the spoils and Ramsey nearly grabbed the winner for the Gunners, only for Kevin Wimmer’s last-ditch challenge to deny the Welshman. The draw opened the door for Leicester City to extended their lead at the top and they beat Watford hours later, with Tottenham now five points behind the Foxes and Arsenal a further three back.
Arsene Wenger handed Mohamed Elneny his full Premier League debut and the 23-year-old put in an impressive performance. The big debate over the past two months has been what exactly Elneny was purchased for. The Gunners desperately needed a defensive midfielder, but Wenger was very adamant about the Egyptian not being that man. Arsenal could have used another striker, but clearly Elneny was not that either.
Coming from the Raiffeisen Super League (Switzerland) for a bargain price of £5 million, it’s not like he was a gangbuster. He wasn’t supposed to take the Premier League by storm and Wenger clearly was not going to allow that to happen anyway. That left the painful reality that Elneny was nothing more than a depth signing. Another midfield option is not a bad thing to have but how much Wenger was discouraging Elneny into the flow of play, it was painful. He showed excellent command against Championship sides Burnley and Hull City but was never given a start against Premier League clubs.
Suddenly, Wenger made the change, putting Elneny in the base of Arsenal’s mystical double pivot next to Coquelin with the out-of-form Ramsey moved out to the right wing. Elneny did not rock the socks off the pitch. He didn’t dazzle or play a part in any of the goals. Some Arsenal fans even complained that there weren’t sure why he was here. But it was pretty clear. He simply did his job by putting in a solid performance in the heart of Arsenal’s midfield.
Anyone watching Arsenal could not be faulted for not necessarily noticing Elneny’s presence on the pitch. That’s not a bad thing, though. Actually, that’s the thing with holding midfield players. It is sometimes hard to evaluate their performance. The work they do is more about positioning and smart play, rather than flashy assists and no-look passes. Most of the time, when we notice them, it is because they made a mistake. So it is a compliment to Elneny that he was quietly efficient on his full Premier League debut, keeping things moving in midfield and making smart decisions regarding positioning. He did his job!
At five-foot-eleven, Elneny is a player with an average height but a good physique for his frame which helped him deal with the threat of both Dele Alli and Mousa Dembele in Spurs’ midfield. Intelligent yet tireless, he provided some of the strength on the ball and thoughtfulness when it came to his positioning and passing that the Gunners have so sorely missed without Santi Cazorla. His positional awareness and judgement added a great degree of balance to ahead of a defence that benefited from a more consistent cover afforded to them.
Elneny stabilized the midfield and showed he is capable of competing in the Premier League, boasting an 80% pass accuracy which was actually higher than Arsenal’s overall figure of 71%. His composed display was vital, particularly as Coquelin was sent off 10 minutes in the second half following two very cheap yet very well deserved yellow cards. His stamina certainly helped the Gunners to get a grip of the contest. As Wenger threw on more attacking power in order to try and salvage something from the derby that had looked lost, the midfielder’s staying power helped the visitors to forget they ever had their numbers reduced.
Most impressively, the Eqyptian international made two interceptions during the game, which took some of the burden off Coquelin – who made six. While the Frenchman is undoubtedly the ball winner in the side, Elneny’s performance will have given Wenger food for thought in a display similar to the likes of Gilberto Silva and Mathieu Flamini, keeping the game ticking over and treating positioning as paramount. He didn’t create any chances for his team-mates or had any shots on target, but he did what Ramsey had been unable to do in that position – maintain possession and not jeopardize the team.
Which makes it very questionable as to why Wenger had waited so long to use Elneny given the cracks that have appeared in Arsenal’s midfield since before his arrival in January. From the very day that his move was confirmed, the Gunners have played nine league games – won two, lost three and drawn four. A run that has seen their momentum shrink from that of being title favourites to Champions League place contenders once again. Although it seems unlikely that they will finish outside the top four yet it is hardly the big finish their supporters were expecting this season.
Against Spurs, Elneny not only looked well-suited to playing the role of acting midfielder instigator but also allowed Ramsey the freedom in the final third rather than working to cover his weakness in a deeper role. As a result, the whole team benefited from his energy higher up the field. It might be too late but the Egyptian could sill be the man to galvanize Arsenal and their title bid if given more opportunities to make Arsenal tick.
This article is written by Shantanu Ambekar, you can follow him on Twitter at @ShantanuAmbekar. What are your thoughts? Let us know by dropping a comment via our comments box below. Make sure you follow us onTwitter, Google+ and like us on Facebook.