These piece first appeared for northlondonisred.co.uk
When Mathieu Flamini left the Emirates in 2008 to go to AC Milan, Arsenal said farewell or “Au Revoir” to the type of midfielder Arsene Wenger preferred between 1997 and 2008. Flamini was a hardworking, energetic whilst being strong positionally and fierce in the tackle as well. He continued in the mould of Petit, Vieira and Gilberto as players able to help Arsenal drive forward but also be well versed in the dark arts although being limited technically compared to them.
Wenger changed his approach slowly after Patrick Vieira left the club and anointed Cesc Fabregas as his successor; a changing of the guard as such as Arsenal turned away from the physical, athletic specimen to a more continental approach with a lone striker up top and a trio of midfielders who all must be technicians and comfortable on the ball. Despite this change in philosophy, Wenger continued to play a physical midfielder in a 4-4-2 until the aforementioned departure of Flamini and from there Wenger decided to implement this style of play in the Premier League.
Denilson started the 08-09 season with Cesc Fabregas in a 2 man midfield, and was admirable adapting his game to allow Fabregas the freedom to utilise his creative ability further up the pitch. He was able to sweep up the play behind him whilst recycling the ball effectively. When Fabregas returned from a long-term knee injury Wenger decided to switch to a 3 man midfield, with Song joining Denilson and Fabregas in the team. The balance was there with Denilson still as the holding midfielder with Song helping him out at times whilst pressing higher up the pitch with Fabregas at the top of the trident being the playmaker and creating higher up the pitch.
Back to Denilson, when he first signed for the club Wenger described him as being “a little bit in between Tomáš Rosický and Gilberto”. His role was to act as the ‘link’ in the midfield, win the ball back just in front of the defence, keeping possession, recycling the ball to the more creative players, and knocking sensible passes out to the full-backs. His job was to keep things simple and keep the game ticking over calmly. For all the talk that Denilson was a sideways passer, he was always able to split defences open from deep with his Cesc-like long balls from deep, he was mostly a player capable to play on the front foot, dictating the tempo whether to keep the ball or quicken the game up with forward risky passes and 1-2s. He was never a Flamini or an Alex Song, who got the pulse pumping of the crowd with their slide tackles and acts of “bravery” on the field but a calm interceptor and a much more intelligent tackler able to initiate attacks rather than aimlessly clearing the ball. Denilson was able to stay generally deep and break up play and did it, without often being tempted to venture too far up the pitch thus breaking the whole shape of the team unlike Alex Song’s wandering legs in his later years at Arsenal.
2008/09 was a breakout season for Denilson and the stats back it up compared to Mikel Arteta and Mathieu Flamini.
|Denilson (08/09)||Arteta (12/13)||Flamini (13/14)|
|Interceptions||146 (4 per game)||97 (2.85 per game)||37 (1.54 per game)|
|Tackles won||148 (4.11 per game)||110 (3.24 per game)||44 (1.83 per game)|
Unfortunately for Denilson, he couldn’t continue in the vein of his 08/09 season as he suffered from a peculiar and debilitating back injury where it was found out he had a small fracture in his back at the start of the 09/10 season and returned to get injured again later on in the season with a groin strain. These injuries appeared to set him back coupled with the emergence of Jack Wilshere, limited his appearances to mainly cup games with the odd league game here and there .In the 11/12 season where with Aaron Ramsey returning from injury and too many midfielders, and limited spots Denilson was the guy who could never win his place back and was eventually shipped off to Sao Paulo on loan and eventually on a free transfer to Sao Paulo. No tears was really shed as everyone understood his time was over at the club with 2 seasons spent on loan in his native Brazil. Denilson personified the Emirates era thus far; new, young, full of promise and ready to take the world by storm instead it started promisingly well for him before imploding and falling apart.
No one could forget him against that ill-fated game against Manchester United in 2010 where he allowed Park and Rooney to run at him, do nothing whilst ambling back slower than the time it takes Chamakh to get his hairstyle done and putting no effort in at all. This was his main fault, he wasn’t able to cope at all with people running at him with pace, was physically weak where it would be easy to shrug him off the ball and most infuriatingly just casually jogging after runners with no effort nor application. Denilson had his faults like any other player but between 2007-2011 where we had 3 good opportunities to win the league and were in the mix by the beginning of February each time, Wenger didn’t help his young troops by totally disregarding the importance of experience in older players. Denilson and to a lesser extent Song and Diaby would have benefited immensely with the help and experience a player like Gilberto Silva would have brought to the table with all his wealth of experience he could boast in various situations he has experienced throughout his illustrious career.
All in all in his latter years at the club, Denilson conveniently was the scapegoat for all of Arsenal’s problem on the pitch (kinda like the #blameramsey campaign don’t forget). Arsenal fans had their pitchforks out ready to blame Denilson for every 5 yard backward pass he would do no matter the circumstances conveniently forgetting what his job on the pitch was, with this lack of trust and love from all quarters he was looking rather lost in his last season at the club. I remember in his last few games where his substitutions would be greeted with cheers, it completely drained whatever confidence he had in himself and in those circumstances a player cannot play to his ability in such a negative environment especially when being in and out of the side. At the end it was good for everybody involved for him to move on to his future endeavors and at the age of 26,there is still time for him to make a return back to Europe and perhaps become the player everyone at Arsenal thought he would become.