“I am not afraid of an army of lions led by a sheep, I am afraid of an army of sheep led by a lion.”
- Alexander the Great.
When I read the quote above, I couldn’t help thinking that it fit perfectly with Arsenal’s summer signing, Mathieu Flamini. The addition of the French defensive midfielder, on a Bosman from Milan, has made Arsenal incredibly difficult to break down. Not that the Gunners are (or were) an “army of sheep”, but they did lack a defensive leader in midfield. Wenger has set his team up in a 4-2-3-1 for a number of years, but the partnership of Ramsey and Arteta, as holding midfielders, never truly blossomed, with both of them looking to get forward and neither of them opting to sit back and protect the back four from a counter by the opposition. As a result, once possession was lost, Arsenal were there for the taking. They lost numerous “winnable” games against mid-table opposition and always had to settle for fourth place. That appears to have changed this season and I think that is largely down to the presence of Flamini.
The arrival of Flamini has solved the defensive issues in Arsenal’s midfield. He and Ramsey utilize a double pivot system, with Ramsey joining the attack and Flamini shielding the defence from any possible counter attacks. I believe that this has led directly to Ramsey’s early season goal glut. Knowing that he can rampage forward and not worry about leaving his team vulnerable at the back must be very reassuring. With that weight off his mind, he can focus on making late runs into the box and generally cause panic in opposition defences.
I was very surprised at Milan’s decision to allow Flamini to leave the club in the Summer. On Monday (January 6th) Milan coach Max Allegri labelled the Rossoneri’s game against Atalanta as a ‘relegation clash’, they won 3-0. Milan’s defence has come in for serious criticism this season and the Italian giants lie in 11th place, 8 points clear of the relegation places. It might be a bit of a stretch to say they would not be in this predicament with Flamini in their squad, you have to put a certain amount of the decline down to Berlusconi, who forced Allegri to abandon his favoured 4-3-3 and play a 4-3-1-2 with a “classic” Trequartista, but I think his absence is telling.
So, what does Flamini actually DO that makes Arsenal a better side defensively? For a start, he reads the game incredibly well. He intercepts the ball regularly, a sign of a player with intelligence. By intercepting an opposing player’s pass, Flamini is able to set up an Arsenal counter attack, something which their attacking players are particularly adept at. Yes, Flamini also makes the last ditch ‘Hollywood’ tackles, but it’s his interceptions which are his real strength. Flamini also excels at short passes. Coupled with his interceptions, this makes Flamini a mini-creator, as he sets players on their way with a simple ball and resumes his place in front of the back four.
An added benefit of Flamini’s short passing ability is that it allows Arsenal to retain possession, tiring out their opponents and indirectly leading to less shots at the Gunners goal. With defensive players, it’s often the things you don’t see which matter most.
As a final thought, I’ll leave you with this quote:
“The God of War hates those who hesitate” – Euripides.
He must bloody love Flamini, so.