Arsenal’s failure this season has been claimed by many to be because we failed to replace Flamini. This is over-simplifying the problem and also placing too great an emphasis upon the role played by Mathieu Flamini.
If we look back at Flamini’s time at Arsenal we will see a player who was a squad player. He came to prominence in the 2005/06 when he deputised for Ashley Cole and Gael Clichy playing in an unfamiliar left-back role. His appearance before that season and in the subsequent season was mainly coming on as a substitute.
Flamini took his chance last season with Gilberto on international duty and Diaby injured, Flamini was Arsene’s first choice. But how instrumental was Flamini in our season last season?
At the back we had a settled back four, Sagna had a tremendous first season and Clichy was solid until his Birmingham moment. In midfield Fabregas was on fire, Hleb and Rosicky were direct attacking players, always tormenting their opponents and capable of scoring and creating goals. In attack, Adebayor player out of his skin. He was assisted by van Persie and latterly by Eduardo.
All in all we had a very good unit all over the pitch. So how much did Flamini really contribute and was he really the cog that we have been missing? Flamini was an industrious player, but he was not the catalyst. Flamini did the simple things, and as we have seen with the likes of Park and Fletcher at Manchester United, if you surround good players with great players they will raise their game.
Flamini’s role could have been performed by Gilberto, in fact in the previous season it can be argued that Gilberto played better than Flamini and saved us on several occasions. A player who would have played as good as Flamini and in fact would have excelled at the club was Diarra.
The key to the central midfield role are the players around you and how they perform. This is where having fallen down this season, the strikers have blown hot and cold, Cesc has not reached anywhere the heights of last season whilst our wide players, until the arrival of Arshavin, have not performed. Had Flamini stayed last summer, I doubt that the end result would have been any different.
On 31st August 2006 at around midnight, a name crossed the Sky Sports News rolling ticker, Denilson signs for Arsenal. After that, there was silence. Who was this person? Where did he play? How good is he? How old is he? These were just some of the questions being asked by Arsenal fans.
We had to wait until the Carling Cup to see who this player was and during the first season he made some fleeting appearances, he was only 18 so we were not expecting much from him. In his first season, he made 13 starts. Last season he was unable to make any great impact and at one point he disappeared from the radar, neither being named as a substitute nor listed as injured. It must have been very hard for a youngster to leave his home and come to a foreign land where it was cold and raining most of the time, look what it did to poor Baptista!
The Arsenal coaches have high expectations for Denilson, in the same way that they expect great things from Merida and Diaby.
With the departures of Gilberto and Flamini in the summer and our failure to bring in any central midfielders, Denilson was left with the duties of playing a defensive role. This was flawed from the outset, Denilson is small in stature and will not grow more, and until he is “bulked” up and is too easily knocked off the ball. Denilson was never bought to be the “enforcer” in the team, his role is more akin to Fabregas, he is a creative player who prefers to go forward and as he has shown this season he is capable of timing his runs to score goals.
In his formative years his delivery from free kicks or corners was excellent, he also packed a mean strike from distance, we need to see more these traits from the young Brazilian.
Denilson will develop into a more forceful midfielder, he will never be a giant like Vieira, but he can turn into a Flamini type player. Flamini was not big, nor did he possess as much skill and ability as Denilson, but what he did was constantly harassing opponents. It must also be remembered that Flamini was older than Denilson and his best season at Arsenal was after being at the club for four years.
The media has not taken to Denilson primarily because we are struggling, yet Flamini was held up as our saviour and the answer to our central midfield problem. Denilson is still learning the game; he will make mistakes about positioning and tracking players, but as longer as we see improvements and progress then the fans need to get behind Denilson.