Overcoming hurdle after hurdle, Mathieu Flamini just won’t lie down and die at Arsenal – each time he comes close to being forgotten completely, the Frenchman shows his worth, just as he did in sensational style in the Capital One Cup win over Tottenham this week.
Signed from Marseille all the way back in 2004, Flamini looked like becoming little more than a backup player for Arsene Wenger’s all-conquering Invincibles side, which featured giants such as Patrick Vieira, Gilberto and Edu as first choice in central midfield, not to mention the more highly-rated teenage sensation Cesc Fabregas, who quickly looked at home in this world-class side despite being only 17 years of age.
Still, by the end of the season Flamini was an Arsenal regular, making the most of injuries to senior stars to impress in some big games, giving fans a glimpse of the future as he and Fabregas were paired together in a thrilling 2-2 draw with Chelsea, in which the Gunners largely dominated Jose Mourinho’s in-form side.
Things weren’t always easy for the midfield workhorse, however, as he failed to nail down a regular place for much of the following season, until, that is, he was drafted in as an emergency left-back – a move that became one of the most bizarrely brilliant tactical decisions Wenger ever made; Flamini became part of a record-breaking Champions League defence which went ten games without conceding a goal, overcoming big names like Real Madrid and Juventus on the way to the final against Barcelona. Never before or since have the Gunners looked so rock-solid at the back, and yet Flamini lost his place in the final when Ashley Cole returned to left-back, and he went back to his role as squad player the following season.
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After three seasons in and out of the side, the Daily Mail reported that Birmingham City were interested in Flamini as he considered leaving the Emirates Stadium to play more often. In the end, of course, he ended up staying and became a surprise star performer for Wenger’s side, keeping Gilberto out of the defensive midfield position alongside Fabregas. After finally looking like providing the Patrick Vieira replacement Arsenal so desperately needed, he declined a new contract and joined AC Milan in the summer of 2008.
Flamini then became the tough-tackling anchor man that Arsenal never really replaced, with the likes of Alex Song and Mikel Arteta trying but failing to replicate that work-rate and steel in the middle of the park.
Much to many fans’ surprise, Flamini returned to Arsenal in the summer of 2013 after a low-key time in Italy. The Frenchman arrived as he left, on a free transfer, and looked like another attempt by Wenger to save money instead of bringing in a more established star. Before long, however, Flamini was proving everyone wrong again by becoming a regular in the starting line up, bossing the game as Arsenal beat Tottenham 1-0 on his second debut for the club, and scoring a fine goal against Cardiff City as the north Londoners led the Premier League table towards the end of the year.
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As before, however, Flamini faded and lost his place.
Last season saw Francis Coquelin emerge as the new star of this side’s midfield, and he will likely remain so; unlike Flamini and Arteta, he has his best years ahead of him and looks a more polished player in general. Still, with Arsenal needing some inspiration in the Capital One Cup on Wednesday night, it was that unfancied workhorse who again showed how much he has to offer this club.
As richly deserves as this is for a player of his mentality and attitude, it keeps on surprising us, even if it maybe shouldn’t.