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It has been a summer more frustrating than usual for Arsenal fans, buoyed in the optimism that Arsene Wenger would be backed in the transfer market to the tune of £80 million but frustrated by the manager’s stubborn refusal to use it.
Luiz Gustavo and Yohan Cabaye offered false hope, there were close flirtations with Gonzalo Higuain before the striker chose Napoli and Yaya Sanogo, a 20 year old signed on a free from Auxerre, remained a contradiction of Wenger’s promise to spend back in May.
On the day Arsenal were drawn against Borussia Dortmund, Marseille and Napoli in a tough-looking Champions League draw, Wenger made Mathieu Flamini, just released from AC Milan his second signing of the summer, again on a free.
But a return for the ex-midfielder after his time in Italy was hampered by injury was hardly business to set the pulses racing of the fans that called intently for Wenger to release the self-imposed financial constraints as they waited patiently to return to the days, eight long years ago as they are tirelessly reminded, when they won trophies.
24 hours after Arsenal triumphed in the first north London derby of the season against free-spending Spurs, the returning feel-good factor at the Emirates was boosted even further by the capture of Mesut Ozil from Real Madrid. With the German pushed out to the fringes of the Bernabeu by the signings of Isco and Gareth Bale, Arsenal stepped in to pull off the coup of deadline day, signing the 24 year old for £42.5 million, a fee that nearly triples the Gunners’ record transfer spend.
Arriving with Ozil is the returning sense of encouragement that Arsenal can return to the very top and once again attract the biggest names to the club, as well as the reassuring relief that Wenger is willing to spend the large amounts of money to be able to compete at the highest end of the market.
Statistically the most creative player in Europe over the past five years, providing 72 assists and creating a total of 492 chances, Ozil is very much the luxury signing, though it is in Flamini, ironically signed through the manager’s instinct to stay true to austerity, that Wenger could find his most effective piece of summer business.
Ozil will join Santi Cazorla, Jack Wilshere, Aaron Ramsey, Thomas Rosicky and Mikel Arteta in an array of creative talent available to Wenger that often leaves his team looking top-heavy, too reliant on panache and too vulnerable to the counter attack.
Despite Arteta adapting to the holding role, there has been a notable lack of a consistently solid influence at the base of midfield, missing in the absence of the near-permanently injured Abou Diaby, explaining the failed attempts to sign Gustavo and Cabaye. Flamini offers a character known to Wenger after four years at Arsenal in the mid 00s and, at the age of 29, a player in the prime of his career.
The physical shape of the Frenchman is something Wenger has acknowledged, “the best years are in front of Flamini now – the next three years. Physically, he is perfect. He was tested, prepared and he is physically in fantastic shape” he said.
From an initial reluctance to sign the player, it was his attitude and fitness that convinced Wenger he was worth a deal, seeing a player able to do the dogged, understated defensive-shielding job that would afford the wealth of attacking talent in Arsenal’s squad the freedom to express their technical qualities.
Against Spurs on Sunday, Flamini slotted back into the Arsenal midfield with seamless ease, making three tackles, breaking up the play and picking up a booking for his troubles as he conceded two fouls.
Though he did the job that was asked of him superbly as he rose from the bench to replace Jack Wilshere after 43 minutes, disturbing the rhythm of Spurs’ possession and helping to protect the solitary goal lead handed to them early on by Olivier Giroud. It was a throwback to the heady days of nearly a decade ago when Flamini’s presence and ball-winning abilities saw him picked up by the giants of AC Milan in 2008.
Flamini saw his playing time in Milan stymied by a squad rotation role and a serious knee injury that saw him miss the entire 2011-12 season. However the Frenchman characteristically fought back to earn a new deal and a place back in the Milan side, making 18 appearances last season as the Rossoneri finished third in Serie A.
It was telling of the worth Flamini held in Milan that Massimiliano Allegri and Adriano Galliani entered negotiations to extend his deal again in the summer, but Flamini decided to leave after five years in Italy in which he won a Serie A title and the Supercopa Italia.
Flamini will hope to experience a return to winning trophies in his second spell with Arsenal after he was a member of the squad that delivered the club’s last piece of silverware in 2005. A lot has changed at Arsenal since then, but the manager who understands how to use Flamini effectively has not and neither has the player’s hard-working, harrying tenacity that makes him such a menace to play against.
Faced with accusations of unnecessary thrift, Flamini’s arrival still represents a gamble for Wenger, but the stoic logic behind the signing is clear. Ozil may take all the headlines along with Cazorla, Rosicky and Wilshere, but it is the battling Frenchman behind them that could yet play the most important role in Arsenal’s season.
Written by Adam Gray
Follow Adam on Twitter @AdamGray1250
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