Mohamed Elneny continues impressive push for expanded role with Arsenal
Few Arsenal players have a following quite like Mohamed Elneny. His status as one of the stars of the Egyptian national team means he is enormously popular on social media -- to put his global reach in perspective, he has more than twice the number of Twitter followers of the club's record signing, Pierre Emerick-Aubameyang. However, despite being a high-profile figure off the pitch, Elneny has remained little more than a squad player at Arsenal. However, his standout performance against Watford suggested he might have an important role to play between now and the end of the season.
It's not that we haven't seen anything of Elneny this season. He has been used regularly in the cup competitions, forming part of the "B" team that saw Arsenal through the group stage of the Europa League. However, the Watford match was just his seventh Premier League start this season. It's clear that, until now, he has not been regarded as a first-choice player.
When he has played, he's been used as a utility player. Arsene Wenger spent preseason experimenting with Elneny as a centre-back, and he has featured as part of the back three several times during this season. He's also operated as a hybrid defender-midfielder, enabling Arsenal to switch between a back three and back four during the course of a single game depending on whether they were in or out of possession. At the San Siro, he even came on as a right wing-back.
The Watford match marked Elneny's return to a more conventional midfield role. Starting alongside Granit Xhaka, he played in the box-to-box position to which he is arguably most suited. Elneny has remarkable reserves of stamina, and is capable of offering support at both ends of the pitch. However, this was a more attacking position than we're accustomed to seeing him in, and Elneny responded with one of his most adventurous performances to date. In the past, his passing has been accurate but rarely penetrative. Against Watford, there was a renewed pace and purpose about his distribution.
Elneny also brings the best out of Xhaka. It's well documented that Xhaka needs someone to do his running for him, and Elneny certainly has the physical capacity to cover for some of the Swiss international's shortcomings. However, unlike Aaron Ramsey, he also has the positional discipline to offer Arsenal a proper midfield platform.
If Arsenal's squad operates as a meritocracy, Elneny's performance at the weekend should thrust him into Wenger's plans on a more regular basis. Arsenal's Premier League campaign might effectively be dead in the water, but their assault on the Europa League continues. Elneny is precisely the sort of player who could prove invaluable in a two-legged tie. His energy and efficiency would be useful in a cautious away leg to help keep it tight, or in a second leg where the Gunners have a lead to protect.
And so to Thursday night's Milan match. Arsenal have a 2-0 lead from the San Siro and need to strike a balance between conservatism and inviting pressure. Starting Elneny and Xhaka at the base of the midfield could prove an effective way of controlling the middle of the park. Ramsey would then be released to play in a more advanced role, where it's fair to assume he would offer a greater threat than the out-of-sorts Jack Wilshere or goal-shy Alex Iwobi.
Elneny is not a player likely to kick up a fuss if he is left out. He is a team-orientated player, and there is a humility about the way he conducts himself both on and off the pitch. However, few could argue if Wenger were to hand him a start against Milan. Come Thursday evening, perhaps Elneny's army of fans will really have something to shout about.
James McNicholas is one of ESPN FC's Arsenal bloggers. You can follow him on Twitter @gunnerblog.