Many years in the future, when time eventually takes its toll on this once potent specimen of humanity and I wile away my dotage in some paisley smeared old people’s home I know what I shall tell those who care to listen. I shall gather round those family members who can still muster enough guilt at abandoning me to occasionally tolerate my company for a biannual visit and spin them a yarn. ‘Mathieu Flamini’ I’ll begin and their eyes shall glaze over, ‘was a Frenchman. He was not a great man. Though he was indisputably, I have on good authority, a man all the same.’ And I shall serenade their increasingly listless faces with the story of how inexplicably on the 23rd of September in a Third Round Capital One Cup tie Mathieu Flamini through his two goals against Tottenham Hotspur became, albeit briefly, a relevant force in English football. They may scoff in disbelief, call for the nurse to bring me my medication and feel vindicated for believing that this implausible tale proved my mental decline was severe enough to warrant me being placed in a home. For surely such a thing could not have happened?
Well, anybody watching the Third Round tie on Wednesday last will know that this is somehow is the reality that we find ourselves in. For all intents and purposes the Third Round of the Capital One Cup is a redundant venture. It has all the competitive relevance to the sporting world as two stray dogs duking it out over a discarded haggis. The fact that this clash was a North London derby admittedly served to slightly raise the stakes, perhaps being on par with a charity tug of war at a poorly attended church fete. If anything the greatest sign of the near irrelevance of the spectacle is the very fact that Mathieu Flamini was himself relevant. He is at best an erratic player. One who flirts between brazenly dangerous lunging tackles seemingly inspired by Kung-Fu movies and sheer defensive incompetence. [Indeed during the corresponding fixture in the Premier League last season last year, prior to Flamini’s replacement as first-choice defensive midfielder by Francis Coquelin, it was his failure to close down the gaps in midfield which afforded Nacer Chadli the space to score the first goal of the game, which ultimately ended in a 1-1 draw.] Yet this game became the Mathieu Flamini show simply because Mathieu Flamini seemed to forget what it meant to be Mathieu Flamini and started lashing in goals for fun.
The first was a simple tap-in on the 26th minute following a long-range shot from Oxlade-Chamberlain which Vorm could only parry into the path of the onrushing Frenchman. Though to give Flamini his dues, even though he was only six yards out he did appear to try his best to hoof the ball straight over the bar, but somehow fate conspired for him to score. The second goal came as something as a surprise in every conceivable way. It was mostly against the flow of the game which after Chadli’s equaliser, a shot which Calum Chambers deflected into his own net, was swinging in Spurs’ favour, and they seemed the more likely side to find a winner. So when a loose ball fell from the heavens in the 78th minute and was volleyed home past a helpless Vorm from 20-yards out even Mathieu Flamini looked awe-struck at what he had just done. It was rather like that oft-utilised scene at the beginning of a superhero movie where the protagonist unwittingly discovers the scope of their powers and stares amazed at their hands for having just shot out some web or set fire to a Volkswagen etc. unable to comprehend what they have just done. So too did Flamini seem to stare at his feet with bemusement and wonder where this panache for goal had been hiding the previous 31 years.
As was to be expected both Wenger and Pochettino fielded mostly second-choice teams. This match thus proved an opportunity for Wenger to exhibit the much talked about ‘depth’ in the Arsenal squad which he claimed sufficient reason for not signing an outfield player during the summer transfer window. Aside from Oxlade-Chamberlain, Ramsey and arguably Giroud, the Arsenal team was comprised of squad players in each position. If Wenger is serious about mounting a challenge for the Premier League title this season than surely this depth should have shone through. Yet Arsenal’s performance was mostly uninspired. Gabriel seems to have become Wenger’s first-choice centre back to accompany Koscielny this season so the back four of Gibbs, Chambers, Mertesacker and Debuchy represents the second choices for each position. Yet at no point did they look solid. Chambers still seems rather rough around the edges and slightly lacking in confidence for a centre-half. Debuchy seems desperately short of match fitness and seems unlikely to replace Bellerin as first-choice right-back.
In midfield Arteta looks rather lost and lacks the vision of Cazorla to play as a deep-playmaker and possesses all the speed, agility and defensive capabilities of a large mahogany Spanish wardrobe. Joel Campbell, despite holding a soft-spot in my heart for his fantastic World Cup with Costa Rica in 2014, appears somewhat out of his depth in an Arsenal shirt and is perhaps unfortunately the most singularly talented man at falling over since the ‘Guy Who Falls On Ice’ from RTE News back in the day. An admittedly rather terrifying looking tumble over the advertising boards springs to mind. When he packs in his career as a footballer there is no doubt a lucrative one waiting for him in the world of slap-stick pratfalls.
Arsenal’s display was on the whole far from convincing in a game which could potentially have shown the depth in their squad and thus their potential to mount a more extensive Champions League or title challenge than in recent years, yet many of the old flaws still remain at the heart of the Arsenal squad. Mathieu Flamini, the stand-out player of the match, remained shaky as a defensive midfielder and seemed only to show that Wenger has remained as true to himself as ever in that he’s managed to do the impossible. He seems to have moulded Mathieu Flamini into yet another goal-focused attacking midfielder. God help us all.