If you want to talk about meteoric rises then look no further than Alex Song. The once defensive laughing stock, the bumbling player who could do no right has seen his stock rise massively over the last three seasons and is now a mainstay in Arsenal’s team.
Playing ahead of Arsenal’s defense, Song’s impressive performances coupled with the lack of proper backup (Coquelin hasn’t got a fair shot due to injuries and Frimpong lacks experience) has meant that Song’s name on the teamsheet has been a guarantee.
Yet as the season has progressed there have been doubts raised over Song’s suitability to the defensive midfield role and Arsenal’s pursuit of Yann M’Vila might indicate that Wenger too has his doubts over Song’s suitability as the shield of Arsenal’s talented yet structurally poor defense.
While there is no doubt that questions over a player’s quality arise only when results aren’t favoring you, there is definitely merit to some of the criticism that Song has received.
Thomas Vermaelen might be a defender but he does have this frustrating yet sometimes hugely successful tendency to wander far too high up the pitch. Sometimes it results in goals like the ones conceded against Norwich and on the other occasions it results in a 95th minute winner against Newcastle. Either it way it requires Song to sit back and do what his position demands him to do, defend.
Koscielny might be one hell of a defender but believe it or not he cannot do everything by himself and this is where Song’s tendency to be caught up high up the pitch can be irking.
That is not to say that he is a slouch going forward. To be honest is far from that. He has proved to be one of the league’s best when it comes to delivering pin point through balls. His assists for Robin van Persie’s goals against Liverpool, Everton and Norwich were majestic to say the least.
Yet the question we have to ask ourselves is do we want our “defensive midfielder” to shirk his defensive duties in favor for those majestic assists or do we rather have him sit back, protect the back four and not chip in with these assists.
I would rather have him do the latter. This isn’t cause I don’t enjoy his assists (we all do, including Robin), its just that I rather have a player in my team who adds more structural stability to the entire side especially a team like Arsenal, whose basic instinctive tendency is to attack, no matter the circumstances. I don’t mind the occasional foray but the timing of these runs and the circumstances of his forays have shown a lack of understanding of his role as the team’s primary defensive shield.
This is why signing M’Vila makes so much sense. He is widely known to be a midfield anchor, a disciplined defensive midfielder and yet his statistics show that when it comes to passing he can hold his own excellently. A player who adds bite to the Arsenal midfield and yet doesn’t compromise Arsenal’s philosophy of playing beautiful football.
Some might say that M’Vila isn’t necessarily the answer with questions regarding his quality and temperament still in doubt. I haven’t seen much and the most I have seen of him are youtube videos. But the stats do back up the fact that defensively he is more solid than Song. The margin isn’t much but football is a game that is decided by the smallest of margins. With 3.1 tackles a game and with 2.5 interceptions, M’Vila’s stats are better than those of Song who has managed 2.8 tackles coupled with 2 interceptions. Even in terms of clearances M’Vila trumps Song with the Frenchman managing 1.8 clearances to Song’s 1.2. Even in terms of discipline M’Vila trumps Song with the Rennes midfielder managing a mere 0.8 fouls a game to Song’s 2.2. But the explanation to this could be very simple: Arsenal being a more attacking team are more prone to counter attacks and Song would be required to make more cynical fouls.
So the question that arises is what happens to Song? Do Arsenal cash in on the Cameroonian and sell him or do they keep him? There is bound to be plenty of suitors for him and there is no doubt that he will achieve a good fee. There even have been rumors linking him with a move away from the Emirates but for now it remains nothing but a rumor.
The other option is to keep him. After all the M’Vila deal is far from finalized with Inter Milan extremely interested in snapping up the Rennes midfielder and if Arsenal repeat the heroics from last season’s Mata deal and he ends up going to Milan or some other club the wise choice would be to stick with Song.
If Arsenal do go into the 2012-13 season with Song as their defensive midfielder it wouldn’t be a disaster by any means. While he does have his flaws he is still one of the better defensive midfielders in the Premier League. He has come a long way in a short time and deserves much praise for coming back and showing the Gunners’ faithful that he is indeed a talented player. But the fact of the matter is that he still prefers the creative side of the game to say a more “destructive” role. And it is of my opinion that Arsenal would do good to have someone of a more defensive mindset guarding their defense. I’m not seeing we need to go out into the market and sign someone like Van Bommel or De Jong. No! We already have Frimpong and Vermaelen if we do need to teach someone a lesson.
But with someone like M’Vila there in the market the wise choice keeping success in mind would be to snap the Frenchman at the first opportunity before the vultures start to circle and it starts becoming a bidding war, something Arsenal will never win.
Also one has to wonder if Arsene Wenger will truly sell Song. He is young, has craft, has decent technique, all assets that Wenger is known to appreciate.
Keeping Song would be a wise decision, not only because he is quality but also because in today’s footballing world where one game is followed by another before even the supporters have time to recover let alone the players, the value and importance of squad depth can never be understated.
But the question is which is his best position: Is it at defensive midfield, or central midfield, a position that many want him to play at considering that he would be free to follow his urges and yet would add a lot of stability to the side.
Central midfield along with an out and out defensive midfield playing behind him, is the position many have touted for him but is he really suited to that role? Would he be a better bet than the likes of Arteta, Wilshere?
One thing I’ve noticed is while Song is capable of putting in delicious chipped balls for Van Persie, he and does have this extremely frustrating habit of trying the same thing far too often. And if he does want to make the transition to a central midfield, he will have to retain possession better.
Over the last two seasons we have seen Jack Wilshere and Mikel Arteta play in the central midfield role and both have done a top notch job, albeit in different ways. While Arteta remains a passer, keeping the ball ticking over, Wilshere is at his best with the ball at his feet where he can take on opponents. And the stats show the contrasting styles between the experienced Arteta and the talented and young Wilshere.
With a whopping 76.9 passes a game, Arteta leads the passing charts for Arsenal. Wilshere on the other hand averages only 54.4 passes a game. With a passing success of 90.8, Arteta’s stats are once again more impressive than Wilshere’s with 86.1. Arteta on the other hand attempts 0.7 passes a game while Wilshere attempts 1.7 dribbles a game indicating the Englishman’s preference to take on his opponents.
With 66.4 passes a game Song falls short of Arteta’s impressive numbers although he does remain ahead of Wilshere. But in terms of dribbles per game, Wilshere is ahead of Song. With 1.7 dribbles a game Wilshere is ahead of the 1.1 dribbles by Song last season and the 0.8 dribbles Song has managed this season.
Song is neither a passer in the mould of Arteta and neither a dribbler like Jack.
But with 0.7 accurate through balls per game, Song remains well ahead of those achieved by Arteta this season (0.2) and Wilshere last season (0.3). In fact Song leads the league when it comes to accurate through balls. This just strengthens my belief that Song is more of a creative player rather than a destructive player.
The fact is I’m not really sure what Song’s best position is. At defensive midfield he lacks the positional discipline to play that role in the long run and in central midfield, I’m not sure whether his passing or dribbling is most suited in that role. This article isn’t a reactionary piece to Arsenal’s indifferent form. It’s an effort to understand what Song does best. I don’t mean to pull Song down in any way and neither am I accusing him of not being a poor player. But his positioning is something I find risky to the balance of the team and it might be because he is more of a creative player by nature rather than a defensive or a destructive one.
I haven’t really taken to the suggestion that he should make a transition into a central midfielder. His passing is a tad wayward to be successful in that role in the long run and while he has the physicality to muscle past his opponents his dribbling skills fall short of those of Wilshere.
There have been countless instances when Wenger has moulded a player from one position to another with tremendous success and there is a possibility that he might repeat the same with Song. I wouldn’t put it past Wenger or Song. But not every move is guaranteed to come off well.
It really begs the question, what is Song’s best suited role? Could Song end up being a jack of all trades and a master of none?
Mean Lean's Response
Happy Bank holiday Monday Gooners, this piece has been gathering dust in the 'to go' section and finally I have managed to respond and publish.
You raise many good points in regards to our flamboyantly dressed, charismatic midfielder Alex Song. Instead of a response, this is more of my own views to add to your own in regards to Alex Song and our midfield system.
In many ways I agree that you could be forgiven for seeing Song as a Jack of all trades and he has had up and down points over the course of the season.
However I am not so sure that our defensive shortfalls should always be lumbered on the shoulders of the Cameroonian.
I have read so many articles and comments who point the finger at Song for just going walk about or to coin a familiar phrase 'thinking he is Messi' in other words leaving his sitting role behind and pushing forward to instigate attacks.
I wish I could find the quotes now but I remember Arsene explaining that he wanted his midfield to switch positions, for players to cover each other and all share the responsibility in creating, scoring and defending as a team, as this made it more difficult for the opposition to stop especially those who are quite fond of the old bus on the pitch routine.
This tells me that the issue isn't that of Alex Song per se but more of the system that we are playing and the lack of implementation of that system when we lose the ball.
I am not saying that all the deflection should be away from Song because he has made a collection of mistakes last season as have Ramsey, Vermaelen and others.
For me it becomes clear when we have a big game. Manchester City at home is a good example of this. The opposition have a greater threat and Song usually puts the brakes on his creative ambition, probably enforced by the manager and he usually has a big game.
I can remember the complaints before the Udinese game away from home in the qualifiers and in that tough and important game he sat and had a colossus match when we needed it.
Yann M'Vila looks a very good player and it is not difficult to see why a manager like Arsene Wenger would have a strong interest in the player but if the employment of the rotating midfield continues and M'Vila was purchased for our wonderful club then what would change if he was asked to run beyond Song and make something happen and we happened to lose possession? Wouldn't it be the same issues but just different players on the pitch?
I am not suggesting for one moment that a player like M'Vila would not make us a better squad or even team but the issues for me lean greater towards the tactical implementation of our 4-2-3-1 system rather than the fault of Alex Song. Sorting out what the players do when they lose the ball at London Colny is more of an issue than that of our number 17.
The one part of Song's game that has concerned me in the past is not his defensive awareness but the speed of his distribution at times in dangerous parts of the pitch. Where as a player like Arteta or Rosicky will play it first time when closed down, Song has a tendency to take a touch, shield and then look for the pass and we have escaped punishment at times. That might not always be the case. I hope that is something he works on and he is certainly young enough to improve his game.
I am intrigued with this whole push Song further forward idea. Not sure if it gets the best out of him. It could be argued that his assists are due to the fact that he has come from deeper, having more time and less direct marking allowing those wonderful curling chips for van Persie's excellence movement.
Life may become a little different with passes fizzed into his feet with his back to goal with an opposition midfielder snapping away at his feet.
Another midfield query I have is given that most of our matches, especially at the Emirates stadium are against teams who sit deep and ask to be broken down, is a midfield trio of Song, M'Vila plus one (Rosicky, Wilshere, Ramsey, Arteta) creative enough, inventive enough, spontaneous enough to help score early goals?
It is great for Old Trafford, Stamford Bridge or at home to the likes of Manchester City etc but the meat and drink of the points over a full season are against everyone else.
Let me just give you all the correct end of the stick for a moment, I am not trying to suggest that our current midfield is correct, perfect or doesn't need improvement/additions etc I am purely asking the questions that I want the answers to.
Rather than defensive protection, I see the issues the other way round. In my eyes, the issue has been that we haven't been able to replicate the numbers of Cesc Fabregas. Our current trio are all mucking in to gain those numbers in terms of both assists and goals. They have almost done that but it has upset our balance without the ball in my ever so humble opinion.
While I would be a fool to swish away my hand to Yann M'Vila, if I was given the choice I would rather have Yann M'Vila's step over, blockbusting shooting, reverse pass, outside of the foot through ball *twin brother.
Then I would like to see Song, Wilshere, Arteta or whoever working more on defensive positioning without the ball and finding brother M'Vila with those chipped passes but still being able to make that offensive difference without such pressure.
* I am guessing that M'Vila doesn't actually have an attacking twin brother but you never know.