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Better with Age: The Impact of Mathieu Flamini's Return

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BIRMINGHAM, ENGLAND - JANUARY 13: Gabriel Agbolahor of Aston Villa is challenged by Mathieu Flamini of Arsenal during the Barclays Premier League match between Aston Villa and Arsenal at Villa Park on January 13, 2014 in Birmingham, England. Photo by Neville Williams/Aston Villa FC via Getty Images.
BIRMINGHAM, ENGLAND - JANUARY 13: Gabriel Agbolahor of Aston Villa is challenged by Mathieu Flamini of Arsenal during the Barclays Premier League match between Aston Villa and Arsenal at Villa Park on January 13, 2014 in Birmingham, England. Photo by Neville Williams/Aston Villa FC via Getty Images.

Last summer when Arsenal FC announced that Mathieu Flamini would be coming back to North London many Arsenal fans were left frustrated and underwhelmed by the signing of the aging Frenchman.  

After a strong run to finish in fourth showed extreme promise and hope of more to come, and with the weight of a trophy drought entering its eighth year heavy on the shoulders of Arsene Wenger and the Arsenal executives, fans were convinced Wenger was finally going to invest in the side and make Arsenal legitimate title contenders again. 

In early July, Arsenal announced the signing of promising youngster Yaya Sanogo.  A typical Wenger signing: young, fleet of foot, promising, French, and on the cheap.  Sanogo was considered to be a player for the future but Arsenal needed a signing that could make an instant impact and shoulder a decent goal scoring return.  He was not the big name signing fans demanded.

Names like Kevin Strootman, Gonzalo Higuain, and Geoffrey Kondogbia were on the lips of supporters.  Arsenal fans cried for Angel di Maria, for Karim Benzema, and Luis Suarez.

All summer long the transfer rumors continued to buzz and swarm around the Emirates.

The summer dragged on.

No further signings were brought in.

Fans were disenchanted and some (a misguided contingent) were calling for Wenger’s head.

As the summer transfer window was coming to a close Arsenal announced that Flamini would be returning to the Emirates from AC Milan.

The day he was signed twitter feeds and hashtags across the globe went berserk with cynicism: some joked that Franny Jeffers was rumored to be in for a medical, that Moritz Voltz and Luis Boa Morte were said to be on Wenger’s radar as last minute reinforcements; that #Gilesgrimandiistheanswer.

Arsenal fans were enraged – especially considering the opening day home loss to Aston Villa.

On Sept. 2, 2013, when the signing of Mesut Ozil was confirmed, the Arsenal faithful rejoiced and shed tears of joy.  The coming of Ozil was the big name signing Arsenal fans had been longing for the past eight years after seeing so many of their top players sold to Clubs around Europe.

Ozil, the former Real Madrid and world-class Germany no. 10, used the scratch of his pen to singly handedly change Arsenal’s season and elevate the club back to respectability.

But here’s the thing – Flamini has been more important to Arsenal than Ozil this season.

Yes, Ozil changed the bad mojo around signings, he elevated the status of the team, and he has proved that Arsenal can be a buying club again, a club that signs world-class players.

But it is Flamini, hidden behind all the hoopla of the Ozil signing, that has helped Arsenal become contenders again.  He has brought back nastiness to the center of the park.  With his return, we have finally seen an Arsenal player barking orders to mark, pressure, and demand his teammates get stuck in. 

Arsenal’s champagne football is fantastic.  Arsenal develop their youth players and mold new signings into the best technical players in the world – only behind FC Barcelona.  Arsenal have proven that by becoming the feeder club for the likes of Manchester City, Manchester United, and indeed Barcelona themselves. 

But they have been missing a dog that would bark and bite and cover their back four.

Credit Mikel Arteta for rebranding himself a defensive midfielder.  He has made that transition better than anyone ever thought he could; but having Flamini as another option in that role, creating competition, and cover for injury, and bringing a learned Italian penchant for hardman defending has brought a balance long missing from Arsenal’s attack minded midfield.

There is no doubt that Ozil has made Arsenal a much better side.

But the steadfastness and grit of Matheiu Flamini has been more important to Arsenal – where after 24 matches played Arsenal lead the most competitive league in the world – the Barclay’s Premier League.