Arsenal can move to within touching distance of a place in the Champions League last 16 with a win over Borussia Dortmund on Tuesday, but will have to do so without a man who has been an unsung star of their fine early season form, Mathieu Flamini. Arsene Wenger has confirmed that the midfielder will miss the match at the Emirates after suffering a concussion in Saturday’s 4-1 victory over Norwich City.
Record signing Mesut Ozil has grabbed the headlines, alongside the transformed Aaron Ramsey, as the Arsenal have taken top spot in the Premier League and taken maximum points from their first two games in what is undeniably the toughest Champions League group. But while the glittering attacking play of the kind that produced a stunning goal for Jack Wilshere at the weekend has been widely hailed, Flamini’s influence has been equally pivotal.
Little was said, even less of it positive, when Flamini’s return to the club he walked out on to join Milan in 2008 was confirmed in August. At the time -- before Ozil’s arrival -- it was seen as Arsenal taking another cheap option in simply snapping up a former player on a free transfer who had been already training with the club. It followed similar moves in recent years for Thierry Henry, Sol Campbell and Jens Lehman.
Instead, thus far, Flamini has made a real contribution on his return. Just how influential he’s been perhaps doesn’t reflect well on Wenger. Indeed, since the 29-year-old left, Arsenal failed to find another midfielder who, like Flamini, was prepared to focus on the less attractive side of the game -- maintaining positional discipline and allowing other players to go forward while also putting in a robust challenge where necessary. His defensive stats do not make overwhelming reading -- although his passing success rate is among the highest in Europe -- but it is the influence he has on his teammates that is equally pivotal.
Flamini’s combativeness has inspired those around him to work similarly hard without the ball. Arsenal’s pressing this season has improved as a result. While he may often not be noticed when on the pitch, he certainly should have been when he was taken off after 37 minutes on Saturday. Almost from the moment Flamini was substituted, Norwich came back into the game, with the visitors having far more space in midfield. And on another day, it could have proved costly with Norwich going two goals behind against the run of play before some scintillating attacking quality by Arsenal gave a scoreline that failed to reflect, as Wenger admitted, the closeness of the contest.
It may well be a different story against last season’s Champions League finalists. Dortmund’s success over the years has been built on the platform provided by their pressing off the ball. Arsenal will now have to match that work rate in Flamini’s absence. Ramsey and Mikel Arteta are likely to be given the central midfield berths and at least one, usually Arteta, will have to be disciplined at all times to limit Dortmund’s lighting breaks when they win the ball back.
While Jurgen Klopp’s side lost young star Mario Gotze in the close season, their threat on the counter attack has in some ways been enhanced with the introduction of the frighteningly fast Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang.
The club’s squad looks stronger this campaign and there is reason to believe that, unlike the past two seasons, they can compete in both Europe and their domestic league this time around. Like Arsenal, Dortmund have dropped just five points in the league, but an opening defeat to Napoli in the Champions League means they will be desperate to take something away from the Emirates.
The absence of Flamini could well help the dynamic Germans achieve it and emerge with a draw that ultimately is unlikely to leave either side overly disappointed.
Prediction: Arsenal 2-2 Borussia Dortmund
Betting Odds: Arsenal are 13/10 favorites to get the win at home. A draw is priced at 13/5, with a victory for Borussia Dortmund available at 11/5.
Sports reporter, mainly focusing on my native sport of soccer, but also dabbling in some tennis and Formula One.