This photo was taken back when Arsenal were just starting to give fans hope that it was truly the start of a new successful chapter post the Invincibles. It was just that with the team at the top of the league for a better part of the 2007-08 campaign. But Arsenal’s season never recovered from February 23, 2008 and Gooners were faced with another blow in the summer. Two of their first-team players decided to leave for (what they believed at that time) better shores. One of them was Frenchman Mathieu Flamini, who not only refused to sign a new contract, but also left the club on a free transfer, finally ending up with AC Milan. In retrospect, we should have maybe known what he would eventually do. His arrival at Arsenal in 2004 was the result of a rather acrimonious departure from Marseille, where he had promised to sign a long-term senior contract only to snub them for the then-Premier League champions.
After 32 appearances in his debut season at Highbury (incidentally his first goal for Arsenal was also the last scored at Highbury by an Arsenal player in the traditional red and white kit – it came in the 7-0 win versus Everton in May 2005), Flamini started to become a regular first-teamer alongside none other than Cesc Fabregas. The duo took over from Gilberto Silva and Abou Diaby; believed to be headed for future Arsenal greatness themselves. Flamini soon dropped back in the defensive midfield role and allowed Fabregas’ considerable creative prowess to flourish, giving rise to a very well-balanced combination together with Tomas Rosicky and Alexander Hleb among others. There was even a time when Flamini had to cover at full-back and left-back following injuries to Arsenal’s back-line, where he sufficiently proved his versatility.
After he left, I don’t think we ever replaced with a similar player. Despite what many argued, Alex Song was always more of an attack-minded player who, given a chance, would go speeding up ahead, instead of dropping back, and leave massive gaps between the midfield and defence for the opposition to exploit. Diaby was also a different sort of player, and one that we could never really depend on with the amount of time he (still) spends on the injury table.
When it was rumored late this summer that Arsenal were looking to re-sign Flamini, now another free agent, I was in a very conflicted state of mind. On the one hand, I thought he would be a very good addition in terms of adding that much-needed steel to our midfield. But on the other, I was also hesitant because I hadn’t seen him during his Milan stint, had read about his injury troubles over the last two years and didn’t know what kind of a player we would be bringing back into the team – it had been 5 years after all and a lot can happen, more so in the world of competitive club football. I wasn’t too bothered about the manner in which he’d left (well I was at that time but the grudge never really solidified, it was something more resembling regret).
However, even Arsene Wenger points out that Flamini’s return wasn’t on his agenda, wasn’t even an option until the 29 year old began training with the team.
“First of all I believe that he realised what he had here,” Wenger said of the returning Flamini. “I must say I was reluctant to sign him again but he was so honest in his statement that he wants to play the kind of football we play, that he wants to help us to win. He convinced me through his attitude and his desire in training that he will be the right signing for us”
It was a determination clear for all to see as he replaced an injured Jack Wilshere for the Tottenham game. Right from his first touch, it was like Flamini had never left, dictating play, regaining possession when lost and cutting out any possible attacking moves before the ball reached the Arsenal defence. He was very vocal, organising and ordering the rest of the midfield. It showed in the team’s added composure in the middle of the pitch and helped in our defence of a slim 1-0 lead against the Spurs who were buoyed by the signing of a host of new players.
If anyone was still moaning about Arsenal’s lack of spending in the transfer window (both Sanogo and Flamini hadn’t cost a penny), the Ozil arrival more than took care of that. It also allowed the Frenchman to start going about his work quietly while all the attention was on the German. In the absence of Arteta, Flamini has put in excellent shifts at the base of the Arsenal midfield – performances that might be overlooked with the sublime football the team have been playing of late with the likes of Ozil, Giroud and Ramsey, but that are equally necessary for the eventual balance of the team. A successful team is one that can consistently maintain this equilibrium of attack and defence, of eye-catching, one-touch football and resilient defensive performances, of the flamboyant creative players and the less flashy but equally integral battlers.
Mikel Arteta has definitely grown into that role in the past two seasons with his thoughtful, intelligent play, distribution and ability to hold onto possession, his calm organisational, leadership skills, and is many a time unfairly overlooked because he is so quietly efficient. During this time we’ve noticed his contribution only when he’s been injured and absent. But one thing he did lack was a certain physicality, a different option that the exuberant, more aggressive Flamini offers. The Frenchman obviously has a point to prove; tirelessly running, talking, shouting (needed in this Arsenal squad which has lacked and missed that sort of vocal presence) and rallying the rest whenever needed. His coming also adds a previously missing toughness, creating a “don’t mess with us/you shall not pass” sort of situation along with the rest of Arsenal back four which hasn’t happened since the days of Viera.
“The likes of Mathieu coming in—he’s a leader and you saw him bossing people around. That’s what we need.” (Theo Walcott, Arsenal.com)
Technically speaking, he is still fairly limited. But with a team that has many playmakers/creative midfielders already, Flamini’s job is very specific and he seems more than happy to provide cover for our back four, work hard to get possession back and ensure that it’s possible for us to play the counter-attacking football we seem to have suddenly rediscovered. Just as Ozil seems to be the creative catalyst to the qualities already present in this team, Flamini is one of the physical ones who has essentially been the missing glue to an already much improved Arsenal midfield. It was an area that had cost the team crucial points on numerous occasions in the past few seasons, a lack of cohesiveness between the attack and defence, and a consequent restriction of fluid movement in the centre of the pitch. Flamini provides that link better than many and most importantly understands his responsibility.
“We have a lot of qualities, a lot of technical players, and they need to be protected … Defensive work is maybe a bit more difficult to see than when you score or make an assist. But it’s very important as part of the balance of the team.”
There is also a certain sense of experience and maturity which is invaluable in its impact both on the field and in the locker-room. But the flip-side to this intense passion is a hot-headedness, an at times recklessness that could lead to sending offs and has already led to bookings and warnings. But as long as Wenger and Bould get him to reign it in sufficiently, I am more than happy for him to keep doing his job. (91% passing accuracy in the league according to Squawka) In a fine man-of-the-match performance against none other than Stoke, Flamini had 3 successful tackles, 3 interceptions, 3 successful clearances (all in the box) with 96% pass accuracy (67 out of 70) [All stats according to FourFourTwo’s Stat Zone]
With the return of Arteta, Rosicky, Jack and a near-return for Santi Cazorla, Wenger is going to have a pleasant headache in selection. There is always the option of playing both El Capitano and Flamini like in the Napoli match which worked very well, but that would mean the loss of one creative player and we saw the problem in that during Arsenal’s recent draw vs West Bromwich Albion. I’d still prefer Arteta in the bigger games because of the added sense of calm he brings to the mix but I think it all depends on the opponent and we are finally in the situation where we have depth and a dynamic, varied set of players to pick and choose from. If that means Flamini still remains more of a utility player, what’s wrong in that? One of the best parts of this current squad is the evident togetherness and solidarity, and all everyone’s expecting is for each and every player to play his own part in the success that seems to be slowly but surely coming back to the Arsenal.
“I think everyone knew Arsenal have a lot of qualities,” said Flamini. “But this year we are showing we have the fighting spirit, everyone is helping each other and it makes the difference because of course in a season you have some good periods and some difficult periods. What is important is to win game after game, work hard and stay focused and to keep going with our great spirit and then we’ll see.”
Like Hleb, a part of me did always believe that Flamini too regretted leaving Arsenal and wanted a second chance to come back and set things right, to take care of unfinished business (He recently told The Guardian’s Amy Lawrence it was the reason for his strong motivation to come back). It is early days so far but the results are promising and it remains to be seen whether the Gunners can sustain it over the course of the season. In any case, Flamini has already earned back any lost respect and love when to comes to the fans.