Mathieu Flamini or Mikel Arteta?

Paul Gilham

Mathieu Flamini has been a revelation, but Mikel Arteta is the incumbent. Who should start for Arsenal?

The return of Mathieu Flamini was largely scorned at. "Another French free signing #LOLArsenal" was the gist of most comments. When Arsene Wenger said that Flamini was at his physical peak, many more laughed and again questioned whether Wenger had "lost it". Yet Flamini's performances have, so far, shown once again that Wenger knows more about football than most everyone else. In an effort to make up for earlier silliness, many journalists are covering themselves by writing how important Flamini has been to Arsenal's form, which, in fairness he has. However, most pieces have praised Flamini at the expense of Mikel Arteta, and that is extremely unfair.

Flamini's form has been a revelation; he seems to be more effective at covering ground now than he was in 2007/08, and a cynical and nasty nature on the pitch that sees him not caring about taking yellow cards for the team has been most welcome. Crucially, unlike another defensive midfielder Arsenal were linked with this summer, Flamini's positioning is fairly good, and, back at Arsenal, his passing has been far better than expected: all of a sudden, he's launching 50 yard passes to Mesut Özil like no big deal. Despite this, Flamini should still be second fiddle to Mikel Arteta.

Arsene Wenger calls Arteta Arsenal's "technical leader", and there's a reason for this. Arteta is very much one of Arsenal's leaders on the pitch, and despite what some have said, he, like Per Mertesacker, is an excellent organiser, a trait he showed in Arsenal's end of season. More than that, Arteta embodies the way Wenger wants his players to play: a move ahead of the opposition, and with intelligence and precision. Despite not being an actual holding midfielder until last season, his intelligence and anticipation leads to an exceptional positional ability, which makes up for lesser pace and athleticism. Those are two traits Flamini has, and while his positioning is largely fine, he can sometimes be too quick in his decision making, as he was when Arsenal conceded Geoff Cameron's equalising goal two weeks ago: instead of closing down the midfield player down, as he should have, he was too quick in dropping to cover Kieran Gibbs. Arteta likely would've closed down the Stoke player, and it's for this reason that despite playing similar positions, Flamini has averaged less tackles and interceptions per game than Arteta.

There's also the passing question: Flamini has been excellent, averaging 55 passes at a 91.8% rate, with 4 long balls per game. Yet last season, Arteta was better, making more passes, with about the same completion rate, and showing more variation in his passing, making 5.3 long balls per game and .2 through balls, chipping in with 3 assists. This isn't to criticise Flamini, but rather, to praise Arteta. Arteta will help Arsenal's ball circulation, which hasn't been the best in the games he missed, improve. Not coincidentally, Tuesday's match against Napoli saw Arsenal's best performance with the ball; not only when attacking, but, playing the ball around as a defensive mechanism, even when under lots of pressure. Arteta was crucial to that.

Wednesday's match showed that the Flamini and Arteta partnership, in big games, has lots of promise. With Flamini closer to Arteta, but given license to close down higher up the pitch, there is extra defensive cover. However, that won't be needed to start in most games, and Aaron Ramsey has been excellent in the double pivot this season and for the final 5 months of last season. Playing him alongside one of Arteta or Flamini will not cost Arsenal defensively, and will make them a more threatening team going forward; if Arsenal are to be as effective as possible, Ramsey will partner Arteta.

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