How nostalgic is it now to think that Mathieu Flamini played well enough in the 2007-2008 season to keep Gilberto Silva on the bench? Granted that Silva was aging and Flamini was only given the chance to start that season due to Gilberto suffering injuries and Diaby being perpetually crocked as well, but it must be said that his play that season was on par with some of the finest midfield work in Arsenal’s recent history. He formed a great partnership with the midfielder-who-will-not-be-
Flamini is now bereft of those qualities that made him fearsome some 5-6 years ago at the age of 30, even though the belief is that midfielders should be in their primes as they approach that tipping point. Some of this is not his fault to be honest; before he left Arsenal, he suffered an injury that April that kept him out for the rest of the season, which incidentally was a sign of things to come for the Frenchman.
There’s the old adage that life after Arsenal isn’t too kind for players. Though there are cases that could be rebuttal against this –Nasri, Clichy, Robin Van Persie and Fabregas relatively–, in Flamini’s case, it is a damning indictment. As seemed to be his way into the first team, Flamini only began to start for AC Milan after injuries to several players. As he did before, he used it as a chance to cement himself after great performances in midfield. However, Milan’s lack of a proper defense meant that he would also start at right back, in what seems to be a foreshadowing of the current Arsenal situation. Nevertheless, he played and he played well.
When Milan won the Scudetto in 2009-2010, Flamini was important in keeping an aging midfield from being exposed.
But towards the end of the season, he lost his place to an in-form Ambrosini in ironic fashion in what should have been a stark notice of Flamini’s upcoming decline. Given their relative age difference and the fact that and regardless of how in-form Ambrosini was, Flamini at that age should have been much better. The next season he returned to a sub-role, coming on late in wins and unsteady losses to ensure midfield stability. Flamini then suffered a horrific knee injury during the preseason of the 2011-2012, missing the entire season in what was essentially the nail in the coffin for his impressive talents.
Fast-forward to June of 2012 and Milan are letting his contract expire, before of course signing him to an one year agreement shortly after he agreed to a hefty pay cut. And so he played his last season at Milan, starting few games while matching his career total in goals at 4, but it was clear that he was no longer the player that had arrived there.
Then came the return of the prodigal son as Wenger described it as “solely for fitness” as Flamini began training for Arsenal with a view to sign for another English clubs. Anyone could see though, that given Arsenal’s lack of a midfield enforcer and the cheap nature of a Flamini transfer, that this was a match made in economic heaven regardless of the posturing of both player and manager to the media. Of course he signs and as he does, he performs well in the first half of the season, helping Arsenal achieve an early start to the season with many critics and fans hailing his signing as a masterstroke.
What goes up must inevitably come down and the truth came to light quicker than how any athletic midfielder must look to Flamini at this point. With the choices of a post-knee injury Flamini and naturally slow Arteta as defensive midfielders, Arsenal were bound to suffer against teams with imposing midfields. There’s no need to rehash the games as we were all witness to them; the horror and anguish of watching the midfield bypassed in a few passes or a run by the opponent’s midfielders is not something easily forgettable.
This should have never been the case. Those who watched Flamini at AC Milan knew that he wasn’t the same player that left Arsenal, nor was he an adequate replacement of that younger self. He was, to both fault of his own and general bad luck, a declining player that few clubs were interested in; a player that was allowed to leave a struggling and rebuilding AC Milan side on a free. He is slow now, his passes are off the mark, he loses the ball and he is easily outmuscled by his counterparts –which wouldn’t be that troubling if he had nimble feet, which he does not.
He has become what Kevin Garnett was in his last few years with the Boston Celtics. Once regarded highly at the beginning due to his ability and his tenacity, he started to become a running joke as that ability vanished and he was left to foul and bark at opponents who were no longer scared of him. Flamini has never been a tough guy, he was a good defensive midfielder who was also a utility player used at right back but he was never a player that many feared. The effort that he has been putting into building this newfound reputation is more of a testament of his awareness of his lack of skill than actual bite.
Imagine players such as Roy Keane, Van Bommel, Daniele De Rossi and the younger Michael Essien; these players scared opponents not only because of the tough tackling and attitude but because they were also scary good. You can breathe fire if you’re as imposing as a dragon but in Flamini’s case, what you get is the man behind the curtain pretending to be a scary wizard. Once you have seen through the act, as we’ve seen many teams do, there’s nothing there; the midfield cover is non-existent and the defense is made to look worse than it should be as they always seem to be outnumbered.
Mathieu Flamini was a good player at one time but he is not anymore and hasn’t been for a long time. At the age of 30 when he should be at his best, he looks more of a liability than a midfield enforcer.