Anyone who consistently watches Arsenal football will be familiar with some version of what’s become a commentator mantra:
“No one could have expected Mathieu Flamini’s improvement this season.”
Undoubtedly, Flamini is having the season of his life, but for many Arsenal fans it is entirely expected.
Don’t believe me?
As the 2007-2008 season began, I faced my traditionally difficult dilemma: Whose name would I get on the back of my jersey?
My choices were down to two—Robin van Persie and Mathieu Flamini.
I chose van Persie.
Clearly I made an error since van Persie has spent his season in the treatment room, but I should be forgiven that error considering the preseason rumours of a Flamini departure.
What’s important in my personal story is that before “the season of his life” began, Mathieu Flamini was already an Emirates hero of mine. And I know I am not alone amongst Arsenal fans.
So why are we not surprised by Mathieu Flamini’s fantastic season?
Three reasons: his fitness, his tenacity, and his fantastic spell as Arsenal’s left back.
On a team as universally fit as Arsenal one must be an incredible specimen to be considered the most fit—and Flamini is that. For ground covered, most good players average 10-11 kms. Flamini is currently beating that total by three, averaging an excellent 14 kms a game, and he is always as fresh in the 89th minute as he is in the first.
More importantly, however, his work rate is not all that is exceptional. It’s what he does with his work rate. His tracking back is impeccable, his tackles are spot on, and his attacking influence is always growing.
And that’s where his tenacity comes in—Flamini never, EVER, gives up. The rare time that Flamini makes an errant pass, he chases down the recipient and gets the ball back.
The rare time he blows a tackle and earns a yellow card he refuses to turn off and play it safe. He keeps tackling and making challenges.
He is so tenacious that his nickname in the Arsenal locker room is “Little Gattuso.” Certainly that says it all.
Moreover, it is Flamini’s natural tenacity that has kept him at the North London club. He has been on the fringe at Arsenal for as long as Fabregas has been at the heart of the first team, but he hasn’t given up. He’s played where he’s been asked, when he’s been asked, while always maintaining his desire to achieve a regular role in central midfield.
During the 2005-2006 season Arsenal had a serious crisis at left back. Ashley Cole and Clichy were hurt for the long haul, and Wenger tried player after player in the position before settling on Flamini as his best answer. Cygan, Senderos, Eboue, Hoyte all took a turn, but they were either hurt or not as good as Flamini, who took the position and made it his own until Clichy was healthy again.
He bombed up and down the flanks with impunity, reeking havoc on opposition defenders, sticking tight to opposition attackers and providing killer crosses, which have continued right into this season when they can finally be capitalised on by the airpower of Emmanuel Adebayor.
He was so good in the position that Wenger almost made Flamini Clichy’s permanent competition.
Lucky for Arsenal he didn’t. And luckier still that Flamini didn’t head back to France in the off season where he was guaranteed a starting place in central midfield by any number of French sides.
Instead, Mathieu Flamini decided to stay with the Gunners and fight for his place—a place that seemed unassailably Gilberto Silva’s. But stay he did, and Mathieu Flamini is now rightfully Arsenal’s number one choice to partner Cesc Fabregas.
As the season moves into its final phase, all teams begin to consider who their best players of the season have been. Commentators tell us that Arsenal’s most improved player is Flamini and their best player is Adebayor.
The most improved player must go to either Manuel Almunia or Alexander Hleb.
And for me the Player of the Year must be Flamini. He makes goals, he scores goals, and most importantly he prevents goals.
He is, quite simply, the best defensive midfielder in the English Premiership today—and he is Arsenal’s most valuable player.
Now all Arsene has to do is make sure Flamini signs that new contract.
He’s a player L’Arse can’t afford to lose.