After Arsenal’s routine 2-0 win over Hull in midweek, most of the talk was about how Nicklas Bendtner working his way back into form would hugely ease the pressure on Olivier Giroud. Arsène Wenger’s rotation worked perfectly, and Giroud may not be required to play every game this year after all. However, what went more unnoticed was the performance of Mathieu Flamini, and how helpful it is to Wenger to be able to bring him in for any game.
Much has been made of Giroud needing to avoid injury and a loss of form all season if he was to be Arsenal’s only reliable striker, but for a while now, Arsenal have only had one reliable defensive midfielder, and Mikel Arteta has had to shoulder the burden of screening the defence on his own at points. Playing every game seemed fine for Arteta during most of his Arsenal career, but at some point last season, it became obvious that his legs couldn’t handle playing 50 games a season – especially in such a hard-working role.
Arteta was frequently outrun by players younger than himself, and once a player skipped past him, it was rare that he caught up with them. This exposed Arsenal at times, and it seemed as if his time as Arsenal’s Mr Reliable was at the beginning of the end. Arsène Wenger seemed to think so too, if his targeting of Luiz Gustavo was anything to go by. However, he missed out on the Brazilian, and ended up bringing in Flamini on a free transfer.
Most were adamant that he should only be emergency cover at full back and midfield. Yet few could have foreseen how important his role would become – not only to the team when he’s on the pitch, as his leadership and fighting qualities are of course important, but also to the squad. Flamini’s availability allows Wenger to be able to rotate freely between him and Arteta, depending on who is fitter, in form and more suited to the opposition.
This has brought out the best not only in Flamini, who was immaculate against Hull, but also Arteta. Now that the 31-year-old is not expected to play in every game, he can fully recover from each exertion and be fit to play whenever he is called into action. The energy and industry that Arteta gave Arsenal at his best a year or two ago is now present once again, and he is a vital part of what keeps them ticking, keeping the ball moving and providing a crucial link between defence and attack.
It is interesting that he plays this role at Arsenal, with the Gunners set to face the side with which Arteta made his name in English football. At Everton, Arteta was a more advanced playmaker, also the conductor of the side, but in a more obviously influential way. Goals and assists regularly came from him, while now at Arsenal, most of goals come from calmly-converted penalties. His role is much more conservative – arguably the same role that Gareth Barry now plays for Everton, funnily enough.
Either way, whether playing in an advanced midfield position like at Everton or as a deep-lying all-rounder as at Arsenal, reliability has been a consistent facet of Arteta’s career. He is reinvigorated now that he has Flamini to share the workload over the season, and is ready to show Roberto Martinez’ new, adventurous Everton side what they’re missing.