From the city of El-Mahalla El-Kubra in the middle of the Nile Delta, to the heart of the Arsenal midfield. The story of Mohamed Elneny has seen a young boy who clutched a football in his sleep fire through the ranks of Egyptian and Swiss football, earning his place in the starting XI of London’s most successful club.
The purpose behind his bedtime habits was to become at one with the ball. The idea came from his father, who was a youth team coach at Baladeyet Al-Mahalla in Egypt, and was reportedly put into action soon after Elneny learned to walk.
“I remember that my father demanded that I went to bed with the ball,” Elneny recalls. “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.”
As with the majority of Arsene Wenger’s signings over the past decade, initial links with, and the ultimate signing of, Elneny were met with a collective sigh by Arsenal’s most vocal followers, with claims of conservatism once again levelled at their long-standing French manager.
What many of the Goon Squad didn’t know was that their side was acquiring an athlete with the lung capacity of a long-distance athlete.
In last season’s Champions League, no player covered more ground per minute than the 23-year-old. It was the same story during the early stages of this season’s Europa League, in which the Egypt international helped Basel reach the knockout stages.
Elneny has carried his admirable stamina to England, averaging just over 12km per match and regularly topping his side’s and the league’s charts for distance covered.
“Running is part of my job, and I like to be in motion,” he said in an interview with Swiss newspaper Aargauer Zeitung during his time at Basel. “As a child, I often played for 10 hours on the street, and that’s where I learned to run non-stop in the heat. I have to help the team with my strengths.”
Arsenal also gained a mind that has become attuned to the demands of the defensive midfield role and, in recent months, the need for attacking nuance. 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 totaled just four.
That same fine-tuned footballing brain has seen a combination of intelligent distribution, tactical understanding and spatial awareness become apparent during his short stint at Arsenal. These attributes are unlikely to ever dominate the back pages, but undoubtedly amount to a valuable armoury.
The Egyptian set a Premier League record for the season when he completed 122 of 127 passes in Arsenal’s 4-0 win over Watford, an indicative representation of the midfielder’s ability and the standards he has set since his arrival. Elneny ranks first at Arsenal for passing accuracy (92.4%) and second in terms of average passes per game (72.9).
Off the pitch, Elneny is not in the business of attracting unwanted publicity or being distracted by the bright lights of England’s bustling capital. In Basel he lived in the tall residential tower at the club’s St Jakob-Park stadium complex; his commute to work was via lift and escalator.
To demonstrate his steely-eyed focus, consider the start of the 2013-14 season, where Basel were drawn against Maccabi Tel Aviv in the Champions League’s third qualifying round. There was massive pressure in Egypt on Elneny and teammate Mohamed Salah not to play the tie.
Salah created political unrest when he said he would not travel with the squad to Israel. He would later change his mind but refused to shake hands with the Maccabi players before both legs of the qualifier. Elneny simply put his head down and got on with the job of being a footballer. He went through with the pre-match handshakes.
This may be an action with weight which many of us may fail to grasp. The Arab-Israeli conflict which fueled this political hostility has been the cause of over 115,000 deaths since 1920. Yet, amidst the trouble which brewed in the above European tie, Elneny displayed the single-mindedness which has propelled his career.
That same selflessness and diligence is exactly what Arsenal have famously lacked since ‘The Invincibles’ of 2003/04 disbanded. Left in the wake of world-beaters like Vieira, Henry and Bergkamp was a primarily inexperienced, mentally weak side.
Silverware may be out of reach, and a top-four finish is unlikely to appease last Thursday night’s empty seats at the Emirates, but Elneny will not be waving a white flag any time soon.
As Arsenal fans come to terms with another title chance slipping through their fingers this season, they can take solace from their Egyptian midfield general. He has proved himself as an exemplary figure when many of those around him have faltered.