Mathieu Flamini left Arsenal in controversial circumstances in 2008 to join Milan on a free transfer following the expiration of his contract. On the back of what was a breakthrough season for him in terms of appearances, his role alongside Cesc Fabregas allowed the Spaniard the freedom to establish himself as Arsenal’s best player.
Many begrudged him this move, why would he depart a club that had challenged until the later stages of the season only to fall away at the end? It may have looked a greedy move but the truth is very different. At the time of the expiration of his deal Flamini was on a rumoured £20k a week to be increased to between £30k and £35k- a substantial amount less than Denilson and Abou Diaby who were on around £50k. From his point of view he is offered less money and shown less faith in than 2 young players who have done very little for the club so far, yet were on higher wages. The money isn’t a major issue, it just looked a bit disrespectful to Flamini whilst Milan were more than happy to offer close to £60k. What would you do?
When he left for the Italian club in 2008, a gap was left. Many viewed Alex Song as the next in line to play in that deep lying defensive role, however I was always critical of his performances. Too many people viewed his attacking play in which he made countless assists for Robin van Persie as his best asset, when a player in his role should make defensive work their priority. His attacking play overshadowed his carelessness. On too many occasions between 2009-2011 with Alex Song deployed as the holding midfielder, Arsenal were caught out at the back with no natural protection in front of the back four. When teams broke there was a noticeable hole between defense and midfield.
The problem that I believe has been part of Arsenal’s Achilles Heel over the past few seasons may now have been solved.
After a transfer window consisting of very little activity from Arsenal, the free transfer signing of Mathieu Flamini did very little to appease the angry fans who were so keen to see a world class player come in. However I believe that this was a blessing in disguise for the Frenchman. With all the attention on a late bid for Mesut Ozil, Flamini was able to go about his work in a quiet manner and just play his football. I have always believed that Flamini is one of those players who you only realize how good he actually is when he isn’t playing. You really miss him when he’s not there.
Like in 2007-08, Flamini has been playing alongside a midfielder at the very top of his game. Fabregas back then, Ramsey now. Ramsey has obviously transformed into a quality player with bags of confidence, for which he deserves a huge amount of credit for silencing his many critics (myself included). But this has also gone hand in hand whilst playing alongside a midfielder like Flamini who allows him to play an expansive attacking game- Flamini sits, Ramsey plays box to box. The Welshman always knows that if he goes forward and becomes our 5th attacker, Flamini will always be there behind him no matter what. This is stark contrast to the last few seasons where partnerships such as Ramsey/Wilshere, Wilshere/Arteta, Fabregas/Wilshere, Fabregas/Song, Song Wilshere have always involved 2 players who want to go forward (even with Song and Arteta who are supposed to play deeper). How many times have Arsenal fans seen Song stranded up the pitch and when the opposition counters Arsenal are left dreadfully exposed.
Arteta last season was given the deeper role but he doesn’t quite have the bite and tenacity that Flamini possesses. ‘Do that again and I’ll blind you’, were the Frenchman’s choice of words to Marc Wilson of Stoke after a tackle on Jack Wilshere. This leadership and aggression is what Arsenal have so greatly missed over the last few seasons.
Like I said earlier, he isn’t flashy or creative, but boy will Arsenal miss him when he is injured or unavailable. He alongside Mesut Ozil has revitalized an average Arsenal team into a team full of confidence who many are tipping to challenge for major honours this season. I can tell you one thing, getting Mathieu Flamini on a free may just be Arsenal’s most important signing this summer.