LONDON // One new face, one returning face, one unfamiliar face.
That was the makeup of Arsenal’s midfield for their FA Cup fourth round clash with Burnley at the Emirates Stadium on Saturday, with Mohamed Elneny making his debut, Francis Coquelin back from injury and Alex Iwobi handed only a third start of his senior career.
It was a trio that showed signs of promise — both individually and collectively — as the holders picked up a deserved 2-1 victory to progress to the fifth round for the sixth successive season.
With Iwobi and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain both capable of playing centrally and wide, it was unclear how Arsenal would line up when the team was announced before kick-off.
Mikel Arteta had spoken of the need for the versatile Iwobi to nail down one position in the build-up to the game, with manager Arsene Wenger opting to field him through the middle against Sean Dyche’s high-flying Championship team.
It was a decision that paid off. The 19 year old, socks rolled down to his ankles akin to George Best, was impressive for the duration of his 71 minutes on the pitch, displaying a level of confidence and maturity beyond his years.
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Iwobi, tidy with the ball and diligent without it, always made himself available to receive possession and generally looked forward when he had it.
It was a very fluid setup in the middle of the park, with Iwobi starting in the No 10 position but often dropping deeper to pick up the ball before driving forward and linking midfield and attack.
There were times when Iwobi and Elneny appeared alongside each other, with Coquelin sitting in front of the back four, and other times when the latter duo formed a double pivot at the base of the midfield.
Elneny, a £7 million (Dh36.6m) acquisition from FC Basel who arrived at the club earlier this month, has been spoken of as a potential alternative to Coquelin, but on this evidence he would perhaps be better utilised alongside the Frenchman.
While the Egypt international was disciplined in his positioning when he needed to be, he also showed ambition in breaking forward when the opportunity presented itself.
Elneny took five shots in total, testing Burnley goalkeeper Tom Heaton on two occasions, and made numerous late runs into the penalty area to try to get on the end of crosses and cutbacks.
His energy and stamina suggested he could excel as a box-to-box midfielder, with Wenger full of praise for his new signing in his post-match press conference.
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“I thought he started cautiously, played a bit secure,” Wenger said. “But he became more adventurous and took some shots at goal.
“His work rate was exceptional [and] his intelligence, mobility and technical level were good.”
Wenger was also pleased with Coquelin’s availability once more after an assured performance from the Frenchman in his first outing since November.
“He looked quite comfortable, with no problems,” the Arsenal manager said.
Only Burnley duo David Jones and Tendayi Darikwa made more tackles than Coquelin, who won possession back for his team more often than any Arsenal player other than Laurent Koscielny.
His return to full fitness is as big a boost to Wenger’s side in a defensive sense as the recovery of Alexis Sanchez is in an attacking one.
Providing he steers clear of injury, Coquelin is certain to be a first-choice pick for the remainder of the season.
It will be interesting, though, to see how much playing time Iwobi and Elneny are afforded in the next few months as Arsenal target success on three fronts.
Iwobi’s age means his appearances are likely to be restricted to the FA Cup, but Elneny could force his way into the starting line-up in the Premier League and Uefa Champions League.
After two months of injury problems, it is a far more pleasant selection headache for Wenger to have.
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