Saturday, December 3, 2022

Flam-buoyant

As a supporter, I could never feel apathetic or even blasé about exiting a cup competition. Even if it is ‘only’ the league Cup. Especially if you’re eliminated by a club as unpleasant as Chelsea. All football competitions are contrived; they are all manufactured for our entertainment to be competed for and enjoyed. I fully understand the club and the manager have to be a bit savvier and prioritise, but as a fan, I guess I don’t see that as my issue. I love knockout football, the premise is exciting and if you qualify for the next round, you get to see more of it. At the end, you may even win a trophy.

Its beauty is truly its simplicity. I understand and even endorse the manager’s team selection, but I couldn’t be dismissive of a cup exit. That’s just me; I’m not suggesting everyone else should be the same. I remember crying as a nine year old at Wembley when Steve Morrow scored the winner against Sheffield Wednesday. In many ways, I still respond to the game emotionally in much the same way as I did when I was 9. If that ever stops, I will probably start doing something else with my time.

The reality for the players and the coaching staff was that Tuesday night was as much about avoiding further injuries as it was the result. Having all four of our wide players simultaneously unavailable for a game against a Mourinho team was always going to play into Chelsea’s hands. Mourinho sides like to squeeze the pitch against Arsenal and that’s easier to do against a legion of central midfield players. There is a reason Walcott usually fares well against Chelsea because he introduces that variety that just wasn’t available to us on the night.

Injuries are an inevitable part of any team’s season, but it is as much the concentration of absentees in specific positions as it is the quantity in your squad that can affect your form. Arsenal are currently without Walcott, Chamberlain, Podolski, Gnabry and Flamini too in a period of the season that sees us face our nearest rivals. Anam’s piece on Gnabry prior to the Chelsea match was portentous I felt. I think the lack of width available in the coming weeks is a concern.

You might ask why I included Flamini in that tranche of wide players. Flamini is actually very important to Arsenal in the wide areas and the ‘spread’ of our play. Firstly, in his foremost defensive or ‘dark’ role as Wenger described it. Arsenal’s defensive midfield is perhaps more nuanced than I am about to describe, but prosaically put, Arteta is brilliant at protecting our centre halves and Flamini, who patrols the width of the pitch, is excellent at supporting our full backs.

Flamini’s penchant for providing defensive reinforcement on the flanks is especially important when Arsenal are playing with four central midfielders. Wilshere, Cazorla, Ramsey, Rosicky and Ozil can all start wide, but all like to drift in field very early on in an attacking move. Podolski, Walcott and Gnabry in particular might end up quite central at the conclusion of an attack, but they stay close to the touchline during our build up play. With all this wanderlust cavorting in our midfield, Flamini keeps the home fires burning for potentially exposed full backs.

Flamini brings those twin intangible virtues of grit and intensity. But it’s an intelligent marriage of the two. According to @whoscored Flamini has made only 7 fouls this season for his four yellow cards. He’s no headless chicken. He understands when to foul. He actually averages only 1.6 tackles per game, which is much less than Ramsey (4.4) and Arteta (2.6) and about the same as Ozil (1.5). He only makes about 1.4 interceptions a game too, which doesn’t compare favourably with the league’s best readers of the game.

He brings organisation though. Arsenal have been ripped apart from their own corners three times this season, by Villa, Chelsea and for Arteta’s red card against Crystal Palace and Flamini wasn’t on the pitch for any of those grievous errors. He reinforces the level of leadership that the likes of Arteta, Mertesacker, Sagna and Szczesny bring. You have to think he’d have started each of our games against Dortmund, Liverpool and Manchester United, so his loss is clearly to be lamented.

One of either Ramsey or Wilshere is going to have to sacrifice some of their attacking exuberance to try and back-fill Flamini’s defensive nous. Ramsey flourished in the ‘destroyer’ role next to Arteta at the end of last season and he might have to reconnect with that role in lieu of his offensive confidence. However, much in the same way that Arteta dabbles in the dark arts more than people realise, Flamini is more cultured than he is given credit for.

Again, according to @whoscored Flamini has a pass accuracy of 93.2% this season and has misplaced only one of his 32 attempted long passes. That is another reason he is crucial to our width. He spreads the play and makes the pitch bigger, looking to involve our wide players with intelligent cross-field passing. Basically Arteta and Flamini dovetail perfectly and between the two, have the right blend of qualities for both our defensive and our build up play. Playing the two together isn’t solely a conservative strategy.

It’s interesting actually that there seems to be such a poverty of quality defensive midfielders in the Premier League’s top clubs. I read this piece with interest looking at the recent Chelsea versus Manchester City game. When one considers that the Premier League used to house ‘volante’s of the renown of Gilberto Silva, Claude Makelele, Javier Mascherano and Xabi Alonso, it’s difficult to suggest the overall quality available in that position has been maintained.

Ilkay Gundogan, Sergio Busquets, Xabi Alonso, Javi Martinez and Andrea Pirlo ply their trades overseas. With an axis of Arteta and Flamini I think Arsenal have a case at least to say they have no betters in the league in this position. There seems to be a current trend for dousing one player’s candle to make another’s burn brighter. At the start of the season, when superlatives flowed for the flowering Aaron Ramsey, it seemed like a directly inverse amount of criticism had to be apportioned to Jack Wilshere.

With Flamini proving his worth by the week, I’ve seen criticism of Arteta gradually increase which I think to be enormously unfair and inaccurate. He was one of the main conduits of our defensive improvement at the end of last season. He serves (his fellow central midfielders) and protects (his centre halves). However, my anxiety for the assignments coming up relate to Arsenal’s width. Maybe I’m just getting my excuses in early, but I fear the concurrent losses of Flamini and our wide players could rob us of our fluency. LD.

Follow me on Twitter @LittleDutchVA

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