- By Peter Muldoon – TFN Editor @ThePeterMuldoon
Mathieu Flamini arrived in London some eleven years ago as a twenty year-old, who had starred in Marseille’s magnificent run to the UEFA Cup final earlier that year. Billed as part of an emerging talented group of young French players to replace those who’d been victorious on home soil in World Cup 98 as well as winning the European Championship in 2000. Flamini joined Arsenal under fellow Frenchman and long time Gunners’ manager Arsene Wenger at a time when there was a significant number of French stars plying their trade at Highbury. Names such as Vieira, Henry and Pires were pillars in the Arsenal invincible side of 2003/04. The magnitude of the feat these men achieved alongside the success that Wenger brought to North London since he arrived in 1996 meant young Flamini had a huge challenge on his hands to just establish himself amongst these giants of English football.
This challenge was evident in his first season in the Premiership as the Frenchman struggled to make an impact on the first team making only nine league starts throughout the entire campaign. But it’s Flamini’s second season in Arsenal colours that displays his true talents. Wenger found himself in a mini crisis at the beginning of the 2005/06 season, as he found himself short of fit left backs in the senior squad. In stepped Mathieu who deputised in a position that was foreign to him at the time. As well as being the final season at Highbury, 2005/06 is remembered for Arsenal’s amazing run to the Champions League final only to be undone late-on in the showpiece in Paris by a Barcelona side set to dominate European football for the next number of years. What really caught the eye of this run was the complete performances given by the North Londoners, as they blended a team with youthful vigour and experienced campaigners that provided steely defensive performances along with a potent forward line firing on all cylinders. This culminated with Arsenal downing the biggest names in European football as Ajax, Real Madrid and Juventus all succumbed to Arsene Wenger’s side.
Central to these fantastic performances was Arsenal’s rock solid defence. Jens Lehmann and Manuel Almunia shared the goalkeeping duties during the campaign while Sol Campbell and Kolo Toure held the fort and the centre of defence. They were flanked by the vibrant Emmanuel Eboue alongside the out-of-position Flamini. The hunger, determination and willingness to work for the team shone through as Flamini blended in with Europe’s finest forwards and rendered them powerless to breach the Arsenal line. Making twelve Cup appearances, Flamini was central as Arsenal kept a European competition record ten consecutive clean sheets before Samuel Eto’o netted in the final. Flamini’s inexperienced did not show as he gave David Beckham two of the most frustrating nights of his entire career as the Galaticos of Madrid failed to defeat the valiant Arsenal. The character Flamini showed during that beautiful run can be instilled in a person overnight, it is a trait that one is born with and not at all common.
It is in somewhat a shame that Flamini grew tired of his role as a utility player. As Arsenal waved goodbye to Highbury and began a new chapter at Emirates Stadium in the summer of 2006 Flamini still found himself in his same role. He netted important goals against Blackburn and Liverpool that season as well as a delicious strike against Chelsea but he still found himself in and out of the team. It was becoming apparent that he wanted out, as no one could argue he had talent but he wasn’t getting the required opportunities while at Arsenal. The 2007/08 season began well as Abou Diaby and Gilberto Silva were out through injury, which provided Flamini a chance which he duly took. He struck up a decent partnership with Cesc Fabregas in the middle of the park and his performances were remarked as vast improvements on his earlier turnouts for Arsenal. This was too little too late however as Flamini exited that summer following the expiration of his contract alongside Alexander Hleb and Silva. His final appearance came against Liverpool in the Champions League and was ended prematurely through injury. He signed for AC Milan on a four year deal and that was it, after an on and off time in England Flamini left through the exit door on somewhat bitter terms. And that could have been it from Flamini but he is no ordinary footballer, he was prepared for more.
There is no doubt that Mathieu Flamini is not the most technically gifted footballer in English football. He may lack the talents of many of his teammates, the pace of Theo Walcott, the strength of Laurent Koscienly, the array of passes of Mesut Ozil, the magnificent touch of Olivier Giroud or the attacking ability of Alexis Sanchez. His goalscoring record isn’t fantastic. He is often criticised for not making forward passes and instead take the easy option of passing it side wards. He has never displayed sheer pace, to take the ball upfield and hurt the opposition. Sometimes he is guilty of getting caught out defensively.
During his first spell in London, Flamini was guilty of some substandard performances and this frustrated Arsenal fans especially because the range of midfield talent at the club at the time. Greats such as Vieira, Pires, Silva and Ljungberg were present alongside quality players such as Edu, Fabregas, Hleb, Rosicky and Diaby. All of whom could be noted as technically good on the ball, capable of swinging matches in Arsenal’s favour. But it’s not fair to compare Flamini to these players. Mathieu has endured a frustrating career where his versatility and ability to adapt to other positions has cost him opportunities to develop into the central midfielder he wants to be. He was used as a utility player at Arsenal until his exit in 2008, moved to Milan where he was deployed similarly. Gianluca Zambrotta converted to left back and Flamini played down the right for his new club. He was released after five years at the San Siro picking up a Serie A medal in 2011. It is because of this that Flamini’s true talents and magnificent traits remained hidden until he resigned for Arsenal in August 2013 after several weeks of training with the Gunners.
The summer of 2013 Arsenal were looking for a superstar and Mesut Ozil duly arrived for a club record fee. This came days after Flamini himself arrived. Arrived home, from his time in Italy. His spell in Milan had not quite worked but he returned to club that he trusted, that would make him feel welcome. Arsenal began that season superbly and Flamini played a role in that good form as he anchored the midfield while Ozil worked his magic upfront. The form wavered but the Gunners won the FA Cup the following May ending nine years of hurt. Flamini did not play in the showpiece against Hull City but he remained the only link to the side that triumphed against Manchester United many years before. Flamini took a lesser role in his second season back in North London as the emergence of Francis Coquelin meant he must be content with a role on the bench, however is importance to the squad that defended the FA Cup should not be questioned.
See, Flamini may not be the most technically gifted football player, we’ve been over that. He offers something different, something that Wenger appreciates and something his teammates thank him for. Flamini gives one hundred per cent every time he pulls on the Arsenal shirt. Whether its from the bench or not he gives his all until the final whistle sounds. If he has had a poor game, he picks himself up, accesses what went wrong and attempts to rectify it next weekend. He works tirelessly for his team, for the badge, for the fans. He puts aside his needs and wants and accepts where his manager wants to deploy him. No doubt players have had their struggles at Emirates Stadium in recent years. Namely Sebastian Squillaci, Gervinho, Andre Santos, Marouane Chamakh to name but a few. Even the great Theo Walcott has had his issues, twice entering lengthy negotiations with the club before pledging his future. Flamini left in 2008 with unfinished business and he returned in 2013 to prove a point to the football club and its loyal fans. He has seen it all with Arsenal, part of some of the clubs greatest ever moments; the win at the Bernabéu, the final in Paris, the move from Highbury to the Emirates and the winning of back-to-back FA Cups. He has been part of this fantastic football club and given his all to it. It would be a mistake for Arsene to allow the French midfielder leave this summer. It would be wrong of the Arsenal fans to allow Flamini become the “Invisible Man” who you never miss until he is gone. For Flamini’s business at Arsenal remains unfinished as he still does not have a Premier League winners medal. Perhaps this season can provide that, and more…