Mesut Ozil’s £42.5 million transfer deadline day move from Real Madrid to Arsenal may have been Arsene Wenger’s marquee summer signing, but the somewhat under-the-radar return of Mathieu Flamini to north London has arguably proven to be the club’s most important new acquisition.
The French holding midfielder, who moved from the Emirates to AC Milan in 2008, has gained numerous plaudits so far this season.
Flamini was released by Milan at the end of the 2012/13 campaign following an injury hampered five-year stint in Italy, and started training at Arsenal in August in order to maintain fitness levels.
However, by August 29 he had re-signed for his old club, and three days later he impressed during a substitute appearance in a 1-0 home victory over north London rivals Tottenham Hotspur.
The Gunners have lacked a truly world-class combative midfield player ever since the departure of Patrick Vieira in 2005, and have failed to win a trophy over the course of the eight years following.
Numerous players – including the likes of Lassana Diarra, Alex Song and Abou Diaby – have attempted to fill Vieira’s boots, with little success.
Now though, it appears that a stronger and more mature Flamini is ready to step up to the plate.
The 29-year-old has started every Premier League and Champions League match which the Gunners have played since his appearance against Spurs, bar the 2-1 defeat at home to Borussia Dortmund last week.
Arsene Wenger’s side had looked more likely to snatch victory in that game, but were vulnerable to the counter-attack, and so it proved when Dortmund broke and Robert Lewandowski fired in an 82nd minute winner for the Germans.
Earlier on in the night Aaron Ramsey, who was playing a more defensive role than the attacking one in which he has thrived this season, had made a costly error when he was caught in possession on the edge of the penalty area by Lewandowski, who fed Henrikh Mkhitaryan to score the opener.
Flamini’s absence through injury may well have been a fundamental factor in the defeat, and when he limped off after just eight minutes on Saturday against Crystal Palace, Arsenal looked weaker defensively once again.
Per Mertesacker and Laurent Koscielny’s partnership has blossomed under the protection of Flamini, but it required a couple of outstanding saves and a man-of-the-match performance by goalkeeper Wojciech Szczesny to keep Palace at bay.
And, when both Mertesacker and Koscielny pushed forward for a corner, a Crystal Palace counter-attack led to gaping holes in the Arsenal defence and the dismissal of Mikel Arteta for a foul on former Gunner Marouane Chamakh, who was clean through on goal.
So, although Arsenal may be able to stake a claim to having the strongest central midfield force in the Premier League – boasting Ramsey, Arteta, Ozil and Jack Wilshere – they have sorely missed Flamini’s more defensive mindset.
With crunch ties against Chelsea, Liverpool Dortmund and Manchester United rapidly approaching, keeping the Frenchman fit will be vital for the Gunners.
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