Sunday, 20 October 2013

Mathieu Flamini: unsung hero

Mathieu Flamini goes off injured against Norwich, 19 October 2013
Flamini goes off after 37 minutes against Norwich after a pretty heavy clash of heads with Alexander Tettey. Definitely a no-nonsense footballer. Just look at those boots...

Today's 4-1 home win over Norwich was a credible display punctuated with some really stylish goals from the Gunners, but the game also illustrated a fact about this team that is becoming ever more obvious – namely, the importance of Mathieu Flamini's midfield presence.

After all, the story could perhaps have been rather different. From the 37th minute through to about the 60th, Norwich had a decent spell in which they capitalised on the absence of Flamini, who was withdrawn with suspected concussion after a heavy clash of heads with Alexander Tettey. The difference without the Frenchman on the field was noticeable, and emphasised just how important a player he has already become in the short time he has been back at Arsenal.

Admittedly, Norwich changed their tactics slightly to get tighter in midfield, while Arsenal seemed to sit back and rely on the back four to hold firm. Part of the reason, I think, is that Flamini is the primary link between Arsenal's defensive and attacking players. Arguably, he's the only truly defensive player in the midfield, and as the anchoring presence, screening the back four and breaking up opposition play, he is a real asset. Today he offered the perfect foil to the probing, attacking interplay of Wilshere, Özil, Cazorla and Giroud. His loss, therefore, was significant.

It is perhaps a vindication of Wenger's decision to bring him back, although by all accounts the manager harboured a bit of resentment for the fact that he left in the first place. I think it's also fair to say that his return to the Gunners back at the end of August produced mixed reactions from fans. Some, admittedly, responded positively, but there were some who were rather more measured and still others who felt distinctly underwhelmed by the signing.

For my part, I hoped it would prove to be a shrewd move and, reflecting on the memories I had of the Flamini–Hleb axis that had started to form back in 2006/07, felt optimistic. As I recall, it showed all the hallmarks of an enterprising and effective partnership – before both had their heads turned by Milan and Barcelona respectively.

Since then the two players' career trajectories have been somewhat different. Hleb is now at BATE Borisov after loan spells at Stuttgart, Wolfsburg and, er, Birmingham. In 2009 he voiced his regret at leaving Arsenal for Barca.

In the meantime, Flamini clearly developed as a player during his five years at AC Milan (although he spent the whole of the 2011/12 season out injured). Milan is a club long renowned for tactical nous and its ability to get the best from players, so Flamini's experiences there must have been good for him, even if his time there was not without difficulties – spending periods out injured and on the sidelines, and ultimately becoming largely a squad player. Despite that, he was a regular for a long spell and in the end notched 96 Serie A appearances.

He seems to be relishing being back at Arsenal. Most impressively, Flamini looks to have slotted in to the side very well and remarkably quickly. Many Gooners have also commented positively on his vocal approach to marshalling and organising his fellow players – the mark of a leader on the pitch that many feel has been missing from Arsenal for some time.

So Flamini's loss after 37 minutes against Norwich was definitely felt. That statement might seem counter-intuitive and even overly negative, given the final scoreline, but the individual brilliance of Mesut Özil and then Aaron Ramsey were in the end enough to kill the game off. They both masked the change that ensued from losing Flamini early on, and meant that overall it didn't matter.

Against stronger opposition, however, things might have got more tricky. It all suggests that Flamini's fitness could be an important factor in the success of the season. The worrying thing in this regard is that there doesn't currently seem to be anyone else in the squad who could play this role in the team – Arteta doesn't look comfortable doing it on his own, and we can hardly count on the fitness of Abou Diaby. Hopefully Wenger has already realised this and might therefore move in January for suitable cover – perhaps a utility player who could play as a DM or a centre-half.

Hopefully Flamini will be fit for the Dortmund game on Tuesday, although head injuries are always (rightly) treated with extreme caution. Don't dwell on that just yet though. Instead, bask in the glow of a comprehensive 4-1 victory in which Arsenal played some truly scintillating football and scored some memorable goals, including one combination that the gaffer has called 'one of the best goals I've seen' – quite a tribute from a man who has been in charge of over 900 Arsenal matches and who must have watched countless hours of football in his career.

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