Mohamed El-Nenny, Arsenal's latest signing, ticks the boxes for the present Gunners side that leads the English Premier League. With three league championships and several domestic Cups, the Egyptian international has a taste for competitive European football, earning his stripes as Swiss powerhouses FC Basel.
The fee of around eight million euros (6.5 million pounds) barely puts a dent in Arsenal's budget as Arsene Wenger looks to bolster his squad ahead of the championship run-in. The 23-year-old emerged as a prospect last year to fill the all-important defensive-midfield position that has long been a concern for Arsenal's coach.
European adventure born out of crisis:
El-Nenny was forced to grow up quickly in his early years as a footballer. Born an hour outside of the capital Cairo, the football-daft youngster was trained individually from the age of three by his father who coached at the local football club. His mother died seven years ago, yet he didn't go off the rails amid political and social turmoil which was about to hit the Arab world.
Following the disaster in Port Said that claimed the lives of 74 fans, the Egyptian League was cancelled and the player missed out on league football for the best part of a year. Compatriot Mohamed Salah, the former Chelsea forward, found an escape route to Europe much quicker than his future teammate. But El-Nenny was always on the club's radar: the main obstacle was a lack of video footage compared with Salah.
A year after Salah's arrival, El-Nenny joined Basel for their winter training camp in Spain where he impressed head coach Murat Yakin. Then 20, El-Nenny signed a loan deal for six months before the club activated a clause in his contract as early as March to complete a permanent transfer. He was already married and he notes this stability in his life as one reason for his success.
Another is that, Salah and El-Nenny were almost inseparable at St. Jakob Park, an Egyptian double act that presented something exotic for the Swiss champions. Quickly, Salah cemented his place in the team following the departure of Xherdan Shaqiri to Bayern Munich and El-Nenny followed the suit.
Given neither spoke the local language, the dynamic was pivotal to their respective success in Europe. With Salah integrated, El-Nenny counted on his Egyptian friend to pass on messages to other members of the squad. In most interviews with the local media, El-Nenny expresses his gratitude to Salah who was “like a brother to him”.
He earned a league winner's medal after six months, but his first full season was a gruelling introduction to life in Switzerland. He played 48 matches across the campaign and helped his team reach the quarterfinals of the Europa League. In Basel's foray into the Champions League, the Swiss champions beat Chelsea home-and-away.
The midfielder's second season with the club was perhaps his most impressive. Voraciously diligent in the centre of the park, El-Nenny's quality as a user of the ball became apparent. Basel won another championship, but the Egyptian experienced qualification from the Champions League group stage for the first time. Under Paulo Sousa, El-Nenny chose to work on his English skills and he became a close ally of the Basel boss. “The longer I'm at Basel, the better I have become,” he said in an interview last year.
Final jigsaw piece for Arsenal?
The onus is on El-Nenny to hit the ground running in North London where the Gunners are impressing with their incisive style of attacking football. Wenger hasn't found a remedy to the defensive-midfield issue in recent seasons, and when he has, injuries have taken their toll. Last season's golden boy Francis Coquelin has been on the sidelines since November and isn't expected to return until the end of February, while Mathieu Flamini is more of a stop-gap option for the North London club.
El-Nenny, a player who appears to fit Wenger's demands, will offer depth and competition for places in the final months of the season. What impressed Basel from their scouting exploits covering the Egyptian U-23 team was El-Nenny's game intelligence and his handling of one-versus-one situations. He'll be more of a shield to the back-four than a player who looks to break up opposition attacks. In possession, however, he will be just as much of an asset to the Gunners.
With a work permit already in the offing, El-Nenny could be ready for Arsenal's match against Sunderland. But certainly, the 39-time Egyptian international should be available for the team's trip