If Arsenal are to overcome Bayern Munich, they will need to produce a display laced with determination, steel and sheer hard work.
Those are three of the attributes one associates most closely with the combative style of defensive midfielder Mathieu Flamini. One of Arsenal’s more unheralded players could yet be their most vital player on Wednesday night.
After his sending-off for a two-footed tackle against Southampton, Flamini’s absence was keenly felt. During his suspension, Arsenal endured a thumping at Liverpool and a dull draw with Manchester United. At Anfield, Flamini’s intelligent protection of the back four was particularly missed. Mikel Arteta was overrun and Arsenal’s defence became horribly exposed.
Flamini’s presence does not always guarantee stability. His detractors will point out that he started in the 6-3 defeat to Manchester City and was arguably one of Arsenal’s poorer players on the day.
However, that match looks increasingly like an aberration. He is generally one of Arsene Wenger’s more consistent players.
Flamini returned for the FA Cup fifth-round tie with Liverpool. Having had a couple of weeks' rest, his freshness enabled him to shackle the often-irrepressible Philippe Coutinho effectively.
The Frenchman’s role will be of particular significance against Bayern Munich. In the Liverpool game, he was partnered by the equally disciplined Mikel Arteta. However, suspension will rob Arsenal of Arteta’s services for the Bayern match. Flamini will be instead by partnered by the more attacking Jack Wilshere.
The defensive responsibility on Flamini will be enormous.
Fortunately, he seems to thrive under that burden. This season, Flamini has emerged as one of the leaders of the Arsenal squad. It is somewhat surprising to see a player who was once derided as a mercenary for leaving the club on a Bosman free regarded as emblematic of the team’s newfound fighting spirit. Nevertheless, Flamini’s character typifies the Gunners’ resolve in 2013/14.
That force of personality will be vital against Bayern. Arsenal need to show that they're not intimidated by their opponents’ glittering reputation. Flamini will ensure that Arsenal get in Bayern’s faces—both figuratively and literally.
Moreover, Flamini will play an important tactical role in the first leg. Arsenal’s great mistake when facing Bayern in 2012/13 was to allow them to assume an early lead. Within 21 minutes, Bayern were two goals ahead. That disastrous spell effectively killed the tie.
In the early portion of the game, Arsenal struggled to cope with Bayern’s strength in midfield. The likes of Bastian Schweinsteiger and Toni Kroos can be incredibly dangerous if allowed space and time on the ball in the final third. Flamini’s primary job will be to ensure they don’t get it.
If Arsenal are to win this game, they will depend on the creative talents of the likes of Santi Cazorla and Mesut Ozil. However, Flamini could be the man to ensure they don’t lose it.
James McNicholas is Bleacher Report's lead Arsenal correspondent and will be following the club from a London base throughout the 2013-14 season. Follow him on Twitter here.
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