“Are Arsenal a one man team?” is a question that has been echoed by fans and journalists across the country so far this season in response to Robin Van Persie’s astonishing goal return for the Gunners.
If you were any of the other ten players on the field you may feel slightly miffed that no recognition was coming your way, after all football is a team game. Or perhaps, particularly after the heavy 8-2 defeat at Old Trafford earlier in the season, you would just be glad that the spotlight was no longer on you.
Much has been made about the positive defensive influence that Thomas Vermaelen brings to the side, and rightly so, however, the impact that Alexander Song has had on the team’s recent good form should not, be overlooked. When the Cameroon international arrived at Arsenal in the summer of 2005 from the French side Bastia, many fans were sceptical about whether he possessed the quality to become a regular first teamer.
After a few seasons on the fringes and a loan period at Charlton, Song has stamped his place on the defensive midfield position at the Emirates. The last couple of seasons in particular his development has continued and last season saw him strike up an excellent partnership with Jack Wilshire as both players took it in turns to support Cesc Fabregas whilst the other sat deeper in order to break up potential counter attacks.
This season with the departure of Fabregas to Barcelona, injuries so far restricting Jack Wilshire’s game time, the emergence of Aaron Ramsey and the signing of Mikel Arteta from Everton; a reshape of the Arsenal centre of midfield has been undertaken. Arsene Wenger’s side of the past few years had been shaped around Cesc Fabregas and the adoption of the 4-2-3-1 formation was designed to utilise his strengths playing just off the most advanced forward. In Fabregas’ absence, Arsenal now lack a “key player” in the midfield, this is not however a bad thing as the loss of the talismanic figure has led to a redistribution of responsibility across the three central midfielders. Ramsay and Arteta are now the more advanced of the three, with Song more disciplined behind them looking to start Arsenal’s attacks and break up the opposition’s play. The change in Song’s game style can be seen from the below passing stats comparing passes attempted in this and last season’s home fixtures against West Bromwich Albion.
Now, not only is Song attempting and completing more passes (showing a greater influence in the game), but he is also making the majority of them from deeper positions. In the 2010 fixture he made five passes in or around the penalty area, whilst in this season’s tie he barely made a pass in the attacking third. This is all part of the new positional emphasis that has been stressed to him and shows that he is now quite comfortable allowing play to go on in front of him.
Why Wenger has decided in order to enforce this change of role now is unclear, one potential reason is now aged twenty four Song has matured sufficiently to take on this important responsibility. Song showed this maturity in the recent game against Dortmund where he was the joint highest tackler and made the most interceptions. The below chart shows the positioning of his interceptions and as you can see five were made in wide areas of the pitch, his reading of the game was fantastic and he would move across to cover the full back when they were attacking.
In the Dortmund game Song also rounded three Dortmund players in order to provide a fantastic assist for Robin Van Persie, this is something that he has added to his game. Song has five league assists so far this season including in vital matches such as the 5-3 win over Chelsea, the 2-1 win over Norwich and the recent 1-0 win over Everton. The pass to Van Persie in the latter of those matches was of superb quality and the vision and skill involved should not be overlooked.
The stats also read well for Song (via whoscored.com), with him in the team Arsenal over the past two seasons have only conceded an average of 1.02 goals per a game in comparison to 2.09 without him. Song has completed more through balls this season per a game than other Premier League player and has completed the second most successful key passes for a defensive midfielder. For a team that values possession so highly it is vital that Arsenal have a ball playing defensive midfielder rather than “the enforcer” that some pundits and journalists had been crying out for.
It would be foolish to suggest that Cesc Fabregas can be replaced, however after a difficult start, and with a rebalance of responsibility, Arsenal have coped well without the Spaniard. What is clear is that Alex Song has played a key part in getting Arsenal’s season back on track.