For Arsenal supporters, this season's transfer window was arguably the most talked-about in decades. While Mesut Ozil's signing received much of the attention, Arsenal also made another move in the closing days of August, signing former Gunner Mathieu Flamini on a free transfer.
During his first spell with the Club, Flamini was known for his versatility, defensive-minded thinking, and an engine that wouldn’t quit. After heading to AC Milan after the 2008 season, he made 122 appearances for the Rossoneri, winning a Serie A title and the Supercoppa Italiana in 2011.
Following Flamini's second Arsenal debut against Tottenham ealier this month, we turned to our panel of supporters in the USA and Canada to get thier early impressions on the player and what kind of impact they think he can make over the course of the 2013/14 campaign.
Question: What are your thoughts on Mathieu Flamini's return to Arsenal and the role he will have in the squad?
I have to say the possibility of Flamini’s return irked me at the first mention, simply because at that time Arsenal had done little else in the transfer market and I didn’t exactly view the acquisition of a free agent as a resounding signal of intent. For the record, I really had no feelings of resentment still left over from Flamini’s departure in 2008, considering the number of players who have since left. But a quick perusal of Arsenal’s roster, however, helped soften my reception just a tad, as the Frenchman’s arrival means he is now the only true holding midfielder the club has, a position they’ve desperately needed to fill ever since his departure for Milan five years ago.
Against Sp*rs he may have shown he’s a little rusty in the tackle (possibly just over-zealous?), but I do think his positional awareness and experience as a more withdrawn midfielder warrant a starting spot in Arsenal’s lineup.
I think Flamini's positional awareness and experience as a more withdrawn midfielder warrant a starting spot in Arsenal’s lineup.Joel McNamara
It’s true that bemoaning the lack of a true holding midfielder has become a bit of a cliché amongst Gooners over the past few years, but I think that’s with good reason. As 7amkickoff’s Tim Bostelle quite rightly pointed out to us recently on the podcast, Arsenal’s defense typically relies on last-ditch tackles made in the open field to cut out counter-attacking opponents, and as a result the margin of error is often much slimmer for them than for teams who employ a network of more tightly covering midfield players.
When Arsène Wenger first brought Flamini to the club in 2004, it was because he was the midfielder who statistically covered the most amount of ground each game. At Arsenal he put his coverage to good use patrolling the midfield both alongside and behind Cesc Fabregas. In other words, providing protection for his teammates was and still is, dare I say, in his DNA. And while it’s been five years since he last performed this duty for us, I have no doubt that if he retains fitness his experience will enable him to once again perform admirably as he patrols the area in front of Arsenal’s defensive line. As we’ve seen with Per Mertesacker in central defense, it’s not so much about speed and athleticism when it comes to cutting out opponents’ attacking moves (although that helps), but rather anticipation and positional awareness.
At this stage I don’t think anyone would argue over the value of Jack Wilshere and Aaron Ramsey, but to say that either one of them positionally fulfills the requirements of the holding midfielder role would be a little naïve. In contrast, whenever Arsenal gave away possession in the second half against Sp*rs -- and I realize later on in the game counter attacks were rarer for Tottenham as they mostly applied pressure and dominated possession outright -- I don’t think I ever once spied Mathieu Flamini in a position where he wasn’t able to immediately shield the back four. On Arsenal corners he was (by my observation) usually nowhere near Tottenham’s area. By contrast, Ramsey and Wilshere have established themselves as attacking-minded creative players, attributes that certainly are a huge asset to this Arsenal squad but often leave the pair in an overly-advanced position where they cannot stem the flow of an opponent’s counter attack once Arsenal lose possession. The fact that they often advance together means the back four is usually left that much more isolated. My podcast co-host Kyle and I have often joked that really just a well-planted shrub would do a better job of obstructing counter attacks given its ability to simply stay inanimate and resist the urge to pile forward whenever Arsenal had the ball.
Whether it’s because they haven’t been explicitly told to mind their positioning by Wenger or they just haven’t developed it on their own, Ramsey and Wilshere have shown themselves to be two players who are more comfortable exploiting their opponent’s defense than proactively reading and dealing with the opponent's attacking moves. Unfortunately, in Mikel Arteta’s absence they currently occupy the two holding midfield positions.
I know it may not be the most popular choice, but I think the more defensive Flamini always deserves a start in place of one of the Ramsey/Wilshere duo (and on current form Wilshere is probably the one to be dropped). I think Arteta’s experience, exceptional distribution and positional integrity may just edge out a starting role for the younger, more mobile Flamini once the Spaniard returns, but really if it were up to me I’d field both of them together against highly attacking opponents, and in other games alternate starting one or the other based on fitness and form.
I know that’s not everyone’s solution, but that’s the beauty of Arsenal’s current midfield situation: they have plenty of options, and while they may not have landed that extra defender or striker over the summer, I think the arrival of the defensively-minded Flamini will go a long way in reinforcing the defenders they already have.
I agree with so much of what Joel has said and I echo the lack of resentment felt -- we did sign him as a free the first time too. I do have some additional points for us all to consider. First, since Flamini left, he had a massive injury, so I remain unconvinced that his engine is at the same level as before. Second, since his departure the roles have changed a bit and more is asked of a holding midfield than his defensive proficiency (though it's still crucial). Third, for his strengths he does not make my starting XI because our midfield flow has been quite respectable.
Two years ago Flamini was recovering from a knee injury while at AC Milan. He played a very credible season last year, but he's 29. I will not say that's old, because I'm 29, but I can assure everyone that he has lost a little pace. If he still has the pace, I am looking forward to being told so (hit me up on twitter for that) but he has to prove it to us.
Flamini's best season for Arsenal had him playing in several different positions which has really trained him up for extra duties that a holding midfielder has.Morgan Rubes
Flamini's best season for Arsenal had him playing in several different positions which has really trained him up for extra duties that a holding midfielder has. Mikel Arteta is not a quick midfielder, but he makes some solid tackles, some calculated fouls, and most importantly he can swing the ball from flank to flank like a fulcrum in our attack. It's similar to a point guard on the top of the arc in basketball shifting the "rock around the horn." Flamini's distribution is going to come under intense scrutiny by many fans.
Mathieu has looked good in the limited action we have seen since his return (I include practice video in that statement), however the overlapping of Ramsey, Cazorla and Wilshere in the midfield has lessened the need for a pure holding midfielder in the Arsenal starting XI. If Ramsey charges up with Cazorla, then Wilshere can hold a bit deeper for the counter-attack; modify that set up for each permutation as we have seen each of those three midfielders switch around like that. The synchronicity of the movement and coverage that Cazorla/Wilshere/Ramsey provide for each other makes of midfield quite formidable.
There is one exception where Flamini makes the starting XI, when Ozil starts as an attacking midfielder. Defense is not his strong suit, so playing a more traditional holding midfielder to compensate is an astute tactical decision. Then Arsenal need a strong engine to link attacking and holding together (Ramsey/Wilshere). While Podolski is out, we can expect Ozil to be central and Flamini holding; when Podolski returns I would expect Flamini to lose his spot in the starting XI. It is great to have these options as just prior to signing Flamini and Ozil we had a starting XI that picked itself.
My assessment is more closely aligned with Morgan's on this topic. First, I really can't understand people harboring some sort of grudge against Mathieu Flamini for leaving on a free when he did. For one thing, it was ages ago, and certainly enough time has passed to have ameliorated the hurt we felt when he walked out. And for another, and more importantly, we've seen so many other, more high-profile players do precisely what Flamini did in leaving at the end of his contract, or worse, engineering a move away from Arsenal in manners more controversial and unseemly. I just can't hang on to negative feelings about former players for that long. With perhaps a couple of notable exceptions.
But I just cannot agree with Joel's assertion that Flamini should claim a place in the Arsenal first XI, and my reasons for dissent are varied. For one thing, we've seen Flamini play one half of one match so far. Yes, he played very well in his time on the pitch, and helped us win a match that very much felt like a must-win situation, even leaving aside that it was the north London Derby. Let's not forget, we are only a matter of weeks from Milan releasing Flamini outright, leaving him in a situation where he was without a club and was merely training with Arsenal to build up his fitness. I can't see a club of their stature taking such action unless they had truly lost faith in him as a player.
I love the qualities that Flamini displayed upon entering the game: his vocal nature and organization, his penchant for a robust tackle, and his motor.Brett Chase
We have previously seen players reclaimed from such situations resurrect their careers, and I don't think there is a man, woman, child, turtle, vacuum, or ghost among us who won't hope for the same from the Flamster. But it seems far too soon to claim "Mission: Accomplished." Morgan mentioned Flamini's injury, and it was devastating, and affected his ability to stay fit during his time in Italy and there's every chance that circumstances could repeat themselves here.
Then there is the question of Arsenal's midfield makeup. We adopted the modified 4-3-3 to better harness the talents of Cesc Fabregas. What we have in place, generally, is a midfield three of: the trequarista (an advanced creative midfielder), the "runner" role (at which both Jack Wilshere and Aaron Ramsey have both excelled at different times), and the pivote, which is, I suppose, the most defensive midfield role. But what this role calls for is a player who primarily serves as a link between the defense and the attack, requiring positional sense (a check for Flamini in this column), an ability to take the ball off of opponents (again, check), and a passer who can distribute effectively and consistently... and that is where the Frenchman falls short.
But even my description of midfield "roles" is a bit distorted. Given the freedom with which Arsène Wenger allows his players to operate, borne out of confidence in their abilities, there is no rigid structure to an Arsenal lineup. Santi Cazorla might be shown as a left winger on the team sheet, but will likely spend an equal amount of time playing centrally or over on the right; this is not a Jose Mourinho team, there is no "Makelele role." So to suggest that Arsenal will suddenly start employing a locked central defensive midfielder would be to confuse an Arsène Wenger side with someone else's. I believe that two more withdrawn midfielders can rotate effectively going forward and providing cover well enough, and I would point to our defensive record once the team had gelled last season as evidence of this.
The main reason why Flamini should not be simply handed a starting role with Arsenal is his competition for minutes. With the acquisition of Mesut Ozil, one central midfielder of the three is spoken for if he's able to play. On current form, Aaron Ramsey is playing as well as any midfielder in England this season, and cannot sit. And given that the best midfielder in this current Arsenal side to make up the trio, Mikel Arteta (and any suggestion that Mathieu start over my Player of the Season for 2012-13 I reject outright) is out injured, the obvious choice is between Flamini and Jack Wilshere... I'll leave Tomas Rosicky to one side for now. I love the qualities that Flamini displayed upon entering the game when Wilshere had to take a bathroom break: his vocal nature and organization, his penchant for a robust tackle, and his motor. But I have reasonable doubts over Flamini's current pace and ability to cover ground like he once did over 90 minutes. You might point out that there are similar doubts over Jack Wilshere's ability to stay fit, and I concede that this is a cause for unease as well.
All things being equal then, it's down to the strengths of the two players and which are more important to the success of this Arsenal side. The immediate effect of the Mesut Ozilsigning as I see it, along with our performances since the Aston Villa debacle, is that Arsène Wenger intends this team to win by playing entertaining, tiki-taka football. With a player as technically gifted as Ozil as the fulcrum, he will need to be surrounded by similarly technical players to make this work. For all of his gifts, Flamini falls short in this aspect to Wilshere by some distance. Wilshere's best period of form occurred while playing alongside Song behind Fabregas, breaking up play and moving the ball forward, which coincidentally happened to be when he was playing consistently. If we have hopes of Jack Wilshere developing into the player we all think he will one day be, he needs to play. Simple as that. And with players of the stature of Ozil, that can only aid his growth. The aspects of Flamini's game that I admire most are, at least in some way, part of Wilshere's as well, so I don't think we lose much by playing him, and we gain a great deal more. Which means we stand to gain more from Jack being in the lineup in terms of his dribbling, passing, vision, his general skill on the ball.
I think the Flamini signing could morph from being a convenient stop-gap transfer to an astute bit of business by the time this season is through. I really do. But I feel that his greatest contribution will be in the form of competition for playing time, in squad depth, and in the ability to come on and play a role when called upon, to help us win matches we have to win through graft and determination. Just as he did against those fellas down the Lane.
The views expressed above are those of the writers and do not necessarily reflect those of Arsenal Football Club or Arsenal Media Group.Copyright 2014 The Arsenal Football Club plc. Permission to use quotations from this article is granted subject to appropriate credit being given to www.arsenal.com as the source 9 Sep 2013