With Arsenal smashing their transfer record on deadline day to bring in Mesut Ozil for £42 million, it is easy to forget he was only one of two midfielders signed this summer by the north London club.
A combination of Ozil’s fee and his undoubted international quality meant that the return of Mathieu Flamini on a free transfer was never going to dominate the column inches. However, in recent weeks it has been Flamini, alongside the superb Aaron Ramsey, who has been crucial in Arsenal’s recent run of form.
Arsenal are blessed with an abundance of creative attacking midfielders, with Ozil the pick of the bunch, yet with the return of Flamini they now have a man who operates in exactly the role they have needed for the last few seasons. Aaron Ramsey unsurprisingly won the majority of the media’s man of the match awards against Swansea on Saturday, but Flamini played an important part once again. The Frenchman will never grab the headlines, but the Gunners are yet to drop a point since he returned to the starting eleven.
While Ozil provided much of the attacking impetus against Swansea, Flamini once again excelled in his clearly defined position shielding the back four. The contrast is sharp between the two players. Ozil is wiry and sleek, gliding away from defenders with ease, whereas Flamini is robust and workmanlike, doggedly breaking up opposition attacks and launching Arsenal on offensives of their own.
The Frenchman was a constant presence in front of the Arsenal defence, hassling and harrying his way through the match. Much has been made of the fitness of Aaron Ramsey in his remarkable run of form, but praise too should go to the 29 year old Flamini who pressed and tackled until the full time whistle. Flamini will rarely beat a man, but he will seldom let his opposite number get past him either, and as such he provides a vital foundation that has been missing at the base of Arsenal’s midfield since the departure of Gilberto Silva.
But Flamini is much more than just a shield for the defence, he provides a level of maturity and experience that Arsenal have been desperately lacking in the centre of the pitch. As viewers of Arsenal’s last few games on television will testify, every time the camera cuts to a shot of Arsenal’s new number 20 he is talking; instructing others, barking orders. Far too frequently the Arsenal midfield has been too quiet, and Flamini provides a near constant stream of noise, encouraging and demanding his team mates to work hard to secure victory.
Flamini is obviously not the most gifted player in the Arsenal squad, yet he has so far excelled in his return to the club he left five years ago. A pass completion rate of 94% against Swansea demonstrates exactly what he is good at. Breaking up play, regaining possession for his side, then passing to the more dynamic, creative players alongside him. His passes are short and simple, rarely more than ten yards, but they are the crucial foundations for the attacks that lead to Arsenal goals.
When Flamini left Arsenal for Milan in 2008, he spoke candidly of his love for the north London side, stating that they were always in his heart. Battling and fighting in the centre of midfield, Flamini’s joy at playing for Arsene Wenger’s side again is clear to see. Arsenal fans are starting to realise their understated summer signing is proving an unlikely hero in their impressive start to the season.