There was one moment in the Spurs game which typified exactly what Mathieu Flamini has brought to this Arsenal side...
Having come on as a substitute in the derby to make his first Gunners appearance for five years, the Frenchman literally barged past a team-mate to get to his man and make a crunching tackle as Arsenal defended their one-goal lead.
That sort of commitment and drive is perhaps par for the course in a north London derby, especially on a player’s ‘debut’, but the competitive spirit Flamini demonstrated in the 1-0 win that day hasn’t wavered for a moment since.
His attitude has proved infectious, rubbing off not just on the players around him, but also helping to galvanise the fans in the stands, and it’s been a major ingredient in Arsenal’s table-topping start to the season.
Of course it shouldn’t have come as a surprise. Flamini displayed those combative qualities consistently over four years during his first spell at the Club. During that time the French midfielder helped Arsenal to the Champions League Final (in 2006) and was a valuable part of the team which fought all the way for the Premier League title in 2008.
At the end of that season he left for Italian giants AC Milan, where he spent five years “working very hard on the tactical side” in Serie A; culminating in winning a Scudetto in 2011.
Now, nine years after first signing for Arsenal from hometown club Marseille, he’s back in north London with a sense of “unfinished business” serving as an extra motivational force...
How did the move back to Arsenal come about Mathieu?
I was a free agent after my contract with Milan expired. They offered me a two-year deal but I was expecting three years. I’m 29 years old now and have some really good years in front of me, so I decided to leave Milan and I just came back to Arsenal at first to work on my fitness. I worked really hard for a month with our fitness coach Tony Colbert, and then I ended up signing again and coming home to Arsenal.
Had you stayed in touch with many people at the Club while you were in Italy?
"On top of everything is the coach. Arsène Wenger is still here and he is the one who educates everyone"
I kept a good relationship with Arsenal and with the players. I came back a couple of times to say hello to everyone at the training ground, and when the team played in Marseille a couple of years ago I went along and saw them all. So of course I have stayed close to the Club. I have always kept a good place for Arsenal in my head and in my heart.
Many of your old team-mates gradually left over the years, but did you carry on watching the team?
Yes, lots of the players left, but some of them are still here from when I was at Arsenal last time. Also a lot of the people who were working here back then are still here, and the philosophy is just the same. On top of everything is the coach. Arsène Wenger is still here and he is the one who educates everyone. He has been here 17 years now, he means a lot to this club and he’s still in charge with the same philosophy.
What were your thoughts on the Arsenal team when you were watching from Italy?
Of course I watched Arsenal a lot from Italy, and I was frustrated as well. When you look at the team, you see all that quality, players playing amazing football, and being so close to be successful, yet not winning anything. It’s not easy to watch that. What’s important is to work hard, and to work on the spirit of the team, because I think that makes the difference. Of course quality is important, but just as important is the collective of the team – to work together, attack together and defend together. That will make the difference.
Did you have any doubts about returning to Arsenal? Were there other clubs interested in signing you as well?
Yes, I had the possibility of other clubs in Italy, in England, in Germany even. But for me it was the chance to come back to Arsenal, with the team we have right now, to work with Arsène Wenger again. It was basically him who introduced me to the top level. He brought me into the Premier League and into the Champions League, so I didn’t think twice when I had the chance to come back. I just said, “Let’s do it.” Now I’m here and happy, and looking forward to having an amazing season. â?¨â?¨When you joined in 2004, aged 20, Arsenal had just completed an unbeaten season and were on a massive high.
Was it easier to come into a team like that, than it is coming into a team who haven’t won silverware for a while?
I was very young when I arrived first time, and had a lot to learn. I had the opportunity to work with great players like Dennis Bergkamp, Thierry Henry and Patrick Vieira. So for me it was a great opportunity. I learnt a lot then, and also when I was in Italy, so now, yes, it’s a different approach. I’m coming back here with a lot more experience, but still into a team with a lot of quality, and I really believe we can do well this season.
You are nine years older than you were when you first joined Arsenal, so do you see yourself as one of those senior players now, helping the youngsters?
Yes, I’m a bit older. I’m 29 so I still have good years in front of me, but obviously when you talk to a 20 year-old team-mate you give a different speech than I did before, when I was in this position. Trying to stay close to each other on and off the pitch is very important. The team spirit is most important. Individuality in the team makes the difference but, for me, on top of it is the collective spirit. What’s important is the team spirit because working for each other on the pitch makes you win games.
Your first chance to show that was the north London derby. What were your emotions that day?
It was a very special day. It was a derby of course, and I know what the game means for the Club, for the players and for the fans too. And I was a bit nervous, to be back in front of our fans, hoping they would accept me. It was an amazing day, I really felt close to the fans, and we got a great result too so everything was perfect.
So you were worried about how the fans would react towards you?
Not worried, but when you leave and then you come back, there’s always a little apprehension. It’s like something new. You’re meeting with the fans so it’s like your first day at school. I was waiting for that day and it was a great day so I’m happy everything went well.
Are you trying to emphasise the aggressive part of your game that the moment? Do you think that’s what the team has been missing?
What I’m trying to do is be natural. I have some qualities and I’m trying to play with my own qualities – I’m not trying to do anything else. If it’s what’s needed I’m happy to do it. I really feel comfortable with my team-mates. I feel good on the pitch and outside the pitch and so far, it’s going well. I’m really happy and I really hope it will keep going on like that.
You played with some great players in Milan. What exactly did you learn from your time there?
I had the opportunity to go over there and play with legends. I played with Maldini, with Kaka, with Ronaldinho and even David Beckham over there. I had the chance to learn a lot. The mentality and the approach to football over there is completely different. The game is completely different too. Tactically, you have to be very strong. You have to learn a lot, you have to know exactly how to move on the pitch. I worked very hard tactically over there. The Italian League is not that easy because you do not have a lot of space. So of course over there I learned a lot. I won a Scudetto and I had some really positive years over there.
What are the main differences between Serie A and the Premier League?
"I really feel that winning the game is a combination of every single player and the total work of each player"
In the Premier League, from the first minute to the last minute, there is a very high intensity. It’s very physical. You don’t have an easy part of the game, like you could find in Italy. The Premier League is 100 per cent, from the first minute until the end. That’s the main difference for me.
You played at full back occasionally for Milan, as you did for Arsenal in your first spell. Could you still do that if needed?
I remember very well when we went to the Champions League Final with Arsenal and I played most of the time at left back. I enjoyed my time playing there. I believe players should be able to play different roles in the team. So of course if Arsenal need me there, I will be more than happy to help them, but my natural position is in midfield
Losing the Champions League Final in 2006, and missing out on the title in 2008 – do you feel there is unfinished business for you at the Club?
That’s totally what I’m thinking. Of course I’ve got great memories here but I also have some regrets. Going to a Champions League Final, especially in Paris, and losing it is something you never forget. It’s something you keep in the back of your head and something you want to fight to forget. The only solution is to replace it maybe one day with a title or coming back to the final. I came back here because I really had the feeling that I had unfinished business with Arsenal. I’m here because I really want to win titles. I’m very motivated and I know this club’s ambitions are very high from everyone – players, management, the team and the fans. Now it’s in our hands.
You say Arsenal as a club hasn’t changed much since your first spell here, but how much has changed in the rest of the Premier League?
For me it’s not been complicated to be part of the team because the philosophy is still the same here. We still think the same way, we still play the same way and that’s because of Arsène Wenger. For me coming back here was like I never left. The difference to other teams is maybe the stability. When you look at other teams like Chelsea and Manchester City, you can see a lot of players coming in and coming out. I would say that’s the main difference between Arsenal and other teams. I really believe that in football, stability is very important because it gives you continuity.
You have already reacquainted yourself with the league’s referees too. Has anything changed on that front? Do you think they are any more or less lenient than five years ago?
It’s still the same. I always had a good relationship with referees. I never had any problems. The physical aspect in England is part of the game and I think everyone is enjoying it – the players and the fans. It’s part of the education and part of the mentality here.
Your fitness levels have been noticeably impressive, just as they were in your first spell. Is that something you work especially hard on?
I feel really good – at least as strong as before. I’m 29 years old and I feel good. Regarding my fitness, I think it’s one of my qualities. I’m quite strong physically and because of my position on the pitch, I have to run and cover as much of the pitch as possible. I try to protect my defence as much as possible, I try to win the challenges and play the ball up front as soon as possible.
Are you one of the rare players who actually enjoys the running drills in training?
I don’t like to run without the ball! During the game, working hard for the team is what I enjoy. I really feel that winning the game is a combination of every single player and the total work of each player. We have the back four working hard not to concede any goals. In the midfield, we’re trying to protect our defence and play the ball very quickly up front. The strikers are trying to score goals. I think it’s a combination of everyone’s work and at the end that makes the difference. My position is in defensive midfield so I’m just enjoying my role. I’ve been doing that for many years and I’m trying to do it as well as possible for the team.
What about your battling qualities and competitive spirit? Has that always been within you? Does any of it come from the days you practiced judo as a youngster?
Well yes I did judo when I was younger but I really believe inside each player you have a competitor. Maybe in some of them, it has a bigger impact. Inside of me, it’s a big thing. I love to win and I hate to lose. I really have problems to accept it when we drop points or when we lose a game. I wake up every morning and I come here to work hard because I want to win. I want to win every little game in training and I want to win when I go on the pitch with Arsenal. I’m a winner and maybe a bad loser. That’s why for me, going on the pitch, I’m trying to give everything. Before you had gladiators at the Colosseum, today we are the gladiators on the pitch when we go in the middle of the stadium and play in front of 60,000 people. We have to give everything for our club.
Not many players come back to Arsenal for a second spell, so it’s natural people will ask you about the past, but do you just want to look ahead now?
Forget about the past? I don’t want to say that because the past makes you build your future. When I look at my past, I have learnt a lot. I was here for four years and had an amazing time. That helps me to build my future here. Let’s not forget the past but let’s focus on the present and the future also. That’s important for me. It’s an important year for everyone – for the players, the fans and the Club. Everyone wants to achieve something big here because we all have big ambitions.
What are your own ambitions? Do you have an eye on getting back into the France national team for example?
Read the interview with Mathieu and more in the latest edition
My mission is to play a major role in this team and achieve what Arsenal hasn’t been able to do in the past years – to win titles. That’s my main goal. I really hope we will achieve that. My priority is my club. After that, with France, if it comes, it comes.
Could you see yourself finishing your career at Arsenal?
I’m really happy here, so why not? It’s a very important club for me. I really see myself here for a long time. In football, everything is possible. For now, I’m focused on the present and on theâ?¨short future. With the short future, I’m talking about this season because we have big ambitions and we really want to do very well here.
Finally Mathieu, you mention the importance of team spirit, how do you assess that in the current squad?
I think everyone knows how much quality is in this team. We all trust each other. Until now, I think we’ve done very well on the pitch. But we have to remember also that it’s only the beginning. The season is very long. That’s why it’s important to keep going the same way, work hard, maybe even harder than we did until now because work always makes the difference. And protect the team spirit. Like I was saying before for me, that’s most important. With quality, each player will have it if they are playing for Arsenal. What is most important and what we still need to work on is the team spirit, to keep it and keep it not only for a few months, to keep it for the rest of the season.
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