If Arsenal are to continue their impressive early season progress, there’s plenty of dirty work to be done in midfield, and free transfer signing Mathieu Flamini seems set to be the man to do it. When he resigned for Arsenal in the summer, having been made a free agent by AC Milan at the tail end of last season, there was almost a sense of despair amongst Arsenal supporters. That serial Tweeter Piers Morgan – aghast at Flamini’s return – informed Gary Lineker via the social network: “I’d rather sign you.” Tabloids and broadsheets scoffed. Was this it? Was this really the way in which Arsene Wenger planned to inject more bite into the midfield; by bringing back the player who’d walked out on the club so controversially 5 years earlier?
Arsenal supporters’ initial suspicions were understandable. In the early months of 2008, with the Gunners sitting pretty at the top of the Premier League, the team seemed set to stride on and claim the ultimate prize, four years after the Invincibles had strutted their stuff. The horrific injury to Eduardo in the away game against Birmingham City clearly destabilised the team, just as the Croatian and Emmanuel Adebayor seemed set to form a devastating partnership. But possibly even worse were the events surrounding Arsenal’s momentous away match against AC Milan, which saw the Gunners knock out the reigning European Champions 2-0 on aggregate. In what should have been a joyful week for the Gunners, in form winger Alexander Hleb slipped out of the team hotel, to “have an ice cream” with his advisor. It later came to light that Hleb had actually made contact with representatives from Barcelona, prior to his summer departure to the Nou Camp. Worse, Flamini, who’d formed an excellent midfield partnership with Cesc Fabregas refused to discuss signing a new contract, allowing it to wind down. Distracted and distraught about Eduardo’s injury and rumours circulating about likely departures, the wheels came off Arsenal’s title challenge.
Flamini himself didn’t play after April, having sustained an injury against Liverpool in the Champions League Quarter Final, and the team missed his dogged approach in midfield. Yet having joined the club 4 years earlier, the 2007 – 2008 campaign was the first in which the Frenchman had really come to the fore. Previously he’d been regarded as a utility player, who was by no means guaranteed a regular starting slot. Now, without him, Wenger’s side realised just how much they missed the scruffy, often unshaven midfield scrapper whose constant harrying of opposing midfielders allowed his prodigiously gifted team mates to show their skill.
Another key factor which Arsenal missed after his departure was his ability to cajole his team mates, and bark orders at them. In recent seasons, the team was subdued, and often appeared to struggle to communicate. There was little or no sense of leadership, with no one able to grab the game by the scruff of the neck when things went awry. The minute that Flamini joined the fray as a substitute against Tottenham in late August, the issue appeared to dissipate. In that magnificent backs to the wall victory, Flamini barked orders, scampered around and gave his team mates encouragement and threw himself around with gusto to deny Tottenham’s new look team any space.
Flamini has been extremely vocal in the press since his return, talking openly about “fighting for my team mates,” “playing as a unit,” and “sticking together as a team.” Flamini embodies Arsenal’s new found mojo as much as Mezut Ozil, albeit in a totally different way. In fact, it’s almost as if he is the de facto captain, speaking with his heart on his sleeve in the press to any journalist who cares to listen. Arsene Wenger commented: “We have a lot of qualities, a lot of technical players and they need to be protected.” Much has been made of Flamini’s relish in getting stuck into the “dark work” which needs to be done on the pitch. For several seasons, the more menial tasks in midfield have been rather overlooked and ignored, but hopefully, not anymore. The importance of what Flamini does (not to mention his impressive pass completion rate) resonates with Arsenal fans who are aware of the value of defensive midfielders to the cause down the years.
Successful teams need holding players (Eric Cantona would have described them scornfully as “Water carriers”) to steady the ship. In the Invincibles side, Gilberto was once described an “Invisible wall” by Arsene Wenger, and in his first Double winning team, Petit and Vieira roamed the centre of the park, aware that their primary job was to stop the opposition midfield from building offensive moves. Under George Graham, Ian Selley and Steve Morrow – never destined to be inducted into the Arsenal Hall of Fame – performed miracles the night the Gunners defeated Parma in the 1994 Cup Winners Cup Final. Under Bertie Mee, Peter Storey took the phrase “midfield enforcer” to another level with his crunching tackles on opponents. Flamini has re injected much needed bite and robustness to an area of the pitch which had long been a little toothless.
The remarkable rebirth of the 29 year old has silenced many of those who poured scorn on Wenger resigning him. As to how long his fantastic form lasts; only time will tell. His abrasive approach will earn him a suspension or two. It’s also hard to predict how long his second spell at the Emirates will be, given Wenger’s previous track record of discarding players who reach their 30th birthdays. But one thing is for certain. Arsene Wenger now knows that in order for an Arsenal midfield to function effectively, he needs a terrier who is willing to snap at the heels of any rival in the centre of the park.