In this edition of We’ve got mail, we are pleased to feature a write-up from an Arsenal blogger/writer who has a soft spot for FC Barcelona. The piece focuses on past developments of newly signed Alex Song, and how he has the potential to contribute to Barça’s potential success this season.
In this post I’m going to have a look at Alex Song’s early Arsenal career. I’m an Arsenal fan who saw Song arrive at the club and settle in the first-team, and I feel there are parts of his story at my club that might offer hints about his future at yours.
After two years wondering whether the club would need him at all, I can pinpoint the exact moment that I started to believe Alex Song might become a star for Arsenal. It was on a filthy Wednesday night in December 2007, and we faced Mark Hughes’ Blackburn Rovers away in the League Cup.
Alex Song started at centre-half, against a team whose physicality and commitment had been a scourge of Arsenal in previous seasons. Cesc once even claimed that Hughes had abandoned his own Barça heritage. But in this match an Arsenal team made up mostly of young reserves fought back, and with equal grit and skill eventually won out 3-2 after extra time.
Alex Song was just one of a number of promising players at the club, but his reputation had suffered during the previous season.
Arsenal had signed him on loan from the Ligue 1 side Bastia in the summer of 2005 as a long-term replacement for Patrick Vieira. At 18 it was clear that he had the physicality and stamina to play as a defensive midfielder, but he was very raw. Call it a simplistic description, but he switched off at decisive moments – failing at times to track opponents or complete five-yard passes.
Still, the manager had seen enough to take up the option to buy him in the summer of 2006.
The following season was a bit of a disaster. In late-November he played a part in a defeat away to Fulham. Arsenal lost 2-1, never recovering from a wretched first half. Song started the match, but was replaced by Cesc at half-time. It was a watershed moment – many claim that the travelling Arsenal supporters booed Song that night. Really they only sang for Cesc to replace him, but the message was the same.
Wenger’s faith in him was steadfast, and in January 2007 he arranged for Song to get Premier League experience at struggling South London club, Charlton. I saw him play once for Charlton in person and got regular updates from friends who supported the club. To them he was a rare highlight in a season that ended in relegation.
At first their reports were puzzling. When they told me, “That kid can really pass!” I figured it was just because he was the best of a bad bunch and had to assume some kind of creative responsibility. That was until I saw his assist against Watford. From just beyond the centre-circle he played a left-footed pass that dissected two banks of defenders, finding his right-back, who barely needed to adjust his stride to score.
On his return in 07-08 he was still a distant reserve, but that December I finally got a full glimpse of the finesse my Charlton friends had praised. He played as a centre-half against Blackburn and was fantastic. With a touch of humour, older Arsenal fans described him as a low-rent Ruud Krol or Lothar Matthäus. He would get the ball from the ‘keeper and drive forward, dribbling past two or three players before find teammates with passes of unseen subtlety. He set up the winner in this fashion, measuring a spectacular through-ball for Eduardo after a powerful run.
His status was enhanced again in 2008, when he starred at the ACN for Cameroon. At centre-half again he demonstrated the same craft and brawn he had shown against Blackburn. Cameroon reached the final, and Song was named in the team of the tournament.
None of this did much to raise Song’s reputation among a large portion of Arsenal fans. And when the player became a first-team regular at defensive midfield in the 08-09 season, there was still plenty of skepticism. It didn’t help that he needed to replace not one but three departing defensive midfielders in Gilberto Silva, Lassana Diarra and Mathieu Flamini.
And under such circumstances, Song was unsteady at first. Arsenal looked set to miss out on Champions League football, but Song’s form picked up, along with the team’s as the season went on. He was a powerful presence in front of the back four, but with the kind of lapses you’d expect from a youngster.
In 2009 Wenger switched to a three-man midfield, which seemed to suit Alex Song, and he improved year on year from that point. He made some occasional contributions going forward, but mostly stuck to his task of breaking up attacks and laying the ball off for more established creative players like Cesc, Nasri, Rosicky, Diaby and later, Jack Wilshere.
By 2011 he had been a fixture in the team for two seasons – quietly effective and increasingly reliable. And when Cesc left, the artistry that he had demonstrated against Blackburn four years previous finally resurfaced. On many occasions last season he’d bustle forward before picking out a striker – usually Robin van Persie – with looped, 30-yard passes. Occasionally he’d inject some directness into an attack by sliding passes through for wingers like Walcott and Gervinho to cross. The same fans who for so long withheld judgment voted him second behind van Persie in the Arsenal website’s player of the year poll.
So what kind of player is Barcelona getting?
I think Alex Song is a midfield all-rounder – hard working and team-oriented; he’s capable in defense, and occasionally incisive in attack. He’s strong and wins more than his share of headers on defensive set-pieces, but allied to that power is nuanced passing, good technique and vision. Consider him a direct replacement for Keita, who can also fill in at centre-half.
The doubts about Alex Song’s defensive contribution have never been silenced. Last season many Arsenal fans blamed this on his urge to get forward, but I believe it had more to do with his awareness and concentration. They are aspects of his game that could use some improvement.
But Barça fans shouldn’t worry too much about that. What Song has demonstrated throughout his career is that he has a capacity to learn, recover from setbacks and disprove doubters. In his first season I think he’ll start matches in central midfield and defensive midfield against weaker opponents, filling in occasionally at centre-half on emergencies. If he avoids injury and continues to improve then I believe he’ll emerge as a key player in 2013.
A special thanks to Alex Bird for sharing with us this excellent piece on the development of Song to date and his potential at FC Barcelona. If you are interested in reading more of Alex’s pieces on Arsenal, you can find them here on Arsenal fan-based site A Cultured Left Foot.