Thursday, June 1, 2023

Here’s To You Mathieu Flamini

Over the years Arsenal have and have had plenty of players that have divided opinion, many that have been universally adored and a few that have been reviled by all and sundry. Few players however, have teased the swing-o-meter quite like Mathieu Flamini. During his two spells at the club, he has swung the vine from cult hero to calamity and back again. In the 1960s, Northampton Town famously lurched from fourth division to first division and all the way back again in just nine seasons. The Cobblers may well have found a kindred spirit in Arsenal’s Corsican utility man.

In his first spell, Flamini was a handy / inconsequential squad player, before experiencing a Lazarus like renaissance, leaping into cult hero status in 2007-08, before promptly becoming a ‘contract rebel’ (football is surely the only industry in the world where serving the full term of your contract makes you a ‘rebel’) and leaving on a Bosman in 2008. This left many of us unsure of how to regard Flamini. He wasn’t important enough for long enough to engender true hero status, so his departure contained a lack of genuine emotional baggage. He was half-heartedly booed by about half of the Arsenal crowd when he returned in a Milan shirt at the 2010 Emirates Cup.

Gonzalo Higuain was given a sterner form of the pantomime treatment by the Emirates Cup crowd because Arsenal lost interest in signing him. In the summer of 2013, the clubless Flamini was training with Arsenal and impressed the manager sufficiently to earn a contract. At first, the signing was treated with dismay. The Gunners’ transfer window had been notably quiet with the Özil signing yet to materialise. It looked like a cheap, make do and mend solution. Many had begun to question whether Wenger had become allergic to spending. However, Flamini quickly smoothed over the animosity.

After a few years of the more ‘cultured’ screening midfielder in Arteta (and Song before him, to a lesser extent), Arsenal fans had begun to ravenously fetishize the ‘all action, snarling, bites yer kneecaps’ DM. Flamini made his second debut against Spurs that August. He ran, he shouted, he pointed, he kicked some Tottenham cunt up in the air. So far, so good. Even if Flamini was not the name Arsenal fans wanted, he was certainly the mould of player they desired. This earned him muchos credito in his Arsenal account, opinion wise.

Having quelled some of the initial cynicism, Flamini’s credit account surfed the waves of Özilmania, as the German arrived from Real Madrid on deadline day. Özil was the MDMA in the Arsenal salt shaker, after he arrived, everything was just swell with the world. The transfer window, which is now a kind of competition in itself for football fans, had been won in the final minutes with a 30 yard screamer of a signing. The Özil effect tranquilised a hostile fan base. Suddenly we were all wide of eye and tense of jaw, as brother Mesut wowed us with his hypnotic beat.

Arsenal had finished the 2012-13 campaign very strongly and, despite an opening day loss to Villa, actually carried that good form into the new season. But that mattered not, all praise was due to the German creator, who had become something of a watermark for Arsenal. The club’s modern history can be divided as BM and AM. The Gunners were playing well and life was good so, you know, Flamini was ok after all. Some began to proselytise that Flamini was as responsible for this uplift in fortunes as Mesut himself. (Everybody talks cod shit on MDMA). He co-opted the defensive midfield role with Arteta and Arsenal’s stand offish, “rope-a-dope” style suited both players. The Gunners would habitually sit off opponents and wait for the chance to pounce, like a snake in the grass. It certainly suited Flamini’s qualities and his ability to both cover full backs and spread play were key components in his game.

Increased use of social media and football forums has had a demonstrative effect on how football fans behave. Groups and cliques arise online and we’re all very conscious of where we are placed in the online pantheon. A very definite spectrum has emerged upon which we compartmentalise (and often dismiss) the opinions of others. There was a small clique of Arsenal fans who took a deliberated and schooled opposition to Flamini. I was probably kinda sorta verging on this territory myself. Those of us that invested a lot of time preaching the undervalued qualities of Mikel Arteta viewed extoling the qualities of Flamini as some kind of betrayal, or loss of face.

We see this trend with lots of player opinion nowadays. To like Ramsey is to take opposition to Wilshere, to rate Ospina is to hate Szczesny and so on. Taking Arteta’s corner over Flamini’s was a kind of mast upon which we could hoist our sensitivity and intellect. Like many lovers of classical music or Jackson Pollock, we could claim a kind of moral high ground because we are attuned to the more subtle brushstrokes of Mikel Arteta and if you aren’t, it’s because you don’t “get it.” Liking Arteta and rejecting Flamini was a kind of badge that granted one admission to the clique of high culture. It’s the Arsenal fan’s answer to ‘virtue signalling.’

I thought then and still think Arteta to be the far superior player, but I don’t think that makes this observation any less accurate. Flamini suffered in the 2014-15 season when Arsenal moved away from their “rope-a-dope” style and morphed into something more proactive. The tectonic plates of the team shifted towards the playmakers, with Wilshere, Özil and Cazorla in the side. Opinion began to turn and then in December, Flamini’s performance at Anfield was savaged on Gary Neville’s Monday Night football slot.

Whilst Neville’s critique was not especially unfair or inaccurate, it unwittingly declared open season on Flamini from within the fan base. It validated some cliques and created others. All of a sudden, Flamini became a kind of bête noir, a shared punch bag that we could bond over between punches. There is an element of supporters ‘needing’ a piñata and Arsenal don’t have the likes of Almunia, Denilson, Song or Eboue taking up important squad positions any longer. The third choice defensive midfielder represents the plunge we’re having to take for a voodoo doll. The emergence of Francis Coquelin also made Flamini surplus, which further encouraged us to view him as a cat to kick.

He came to represent a double edged sword. As I said earlier in the piece, people are very conscious as to how they come across on social media and to which cliques they are appointed. Flamini was an easy win for those that are conscious of appearing ‘too positive’ or ‘happy clappy.’ To denigrate Flamini is the free ticket to being perceived as objective and balanced. ‘See, I don’t just mindlessly agree with everything Arsenal do, I think Flamini is shit too.’ His name is the hall pass to sanity in the eyes of our peers. Likewise, for those that regard the club and the manager as a hair shirt with which to constantly bristle, his name rolls off the tongue when listing perceived inadequacies in Arsenal’s squad.

Of course there is an element of fear mixed into this Molotov of behaviours too. The “DM” position is one that has long regarded as malnourished by Arsenal fans. There is a fear that Wenger will again eschew his chequebook and consider the position closed this summer. Overplaying Flamini’s weakness helps to justify the continued clamour for a new defensive midfield player. Now, understand that I’m not suggesting that clamour to be unreasonable, nor do I seek to overplay Flamini’s quality. I think he’s fairly average and he and Arsenal have probably outgrown one another at this stage, but I do think his flaws are hyperbolised in service of this point.

Whilst his play has often been dismissed as uncultured and in some cases uncouth, Mathieu Flamini actually provides a fascinating case study into how we view ourselves. Not only how we view ourselves, but how we wish to be viewed by our digital peers. Flamini, quite unwittingly, provides an insight into the power of the hive mind in modern football, how it fluctuates and how the fan base interacts with itself. Whilst his probable departure this summer will not be greatly mourned, I do wonder if the joke is on us to some degree.

Follow me on Twitter @Stillberto

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