The annual Catalan shopping trip to the Emirates is underway. Spanish newspaper Sport is reporting that Barcelona have reached an agreement with Alex Song to take him to Camp Nou. Arsenal are yet to agree to any deal but when a situation involves Barcelona, an expiring contract and Song’s agent Darren Dein the conclusion is almost inevitable.
Song has developed into a very good footballer. The start to his Gunners career was slow, with a half-time substitution in a 2-1 defeat to Fulham after an exceptionally poor display – a particular lowlight. Months later he joined Charlton on loan during which he started to show signs of promise. It became clear that some confidence was all that was needed to bring out the talent. Since his return to North London, he’s developed and become one of the first names on Arsène Wenger’s team sheet.
Statistics suggest that last season was Song’s best. The Cameroonian played the highest number of through balls per game in the Premier League and was credited with 11 assists, some of which were the result of brilliant pieces of play. It is noticeable that two of Robin Van Persie’s best strikes, the volleys against Liverpool and Everton, were created by perfectly chipped passes by Song.
But building a team is not solely reliant on collecting a talented group of individuals. Whilst ability is obviously important, achieving balance is fundamental and for all his qualities and strengths Song is currently upsetting that. Arsenal conceded far too many goals to realistically challenge for trophies last season and the lack of balance was often the cause of this, rather than the defence itself as lazy punditry suggests.
With the emergence of Wojciech Szczęsny and the return of Thomas Vermaelen, Arsenal were far more competent at dealing with aerial threats. And although Vermaelen has a nasty habit of being too eager to win the ball early, he and Laurent Koscielny formed a very effective centre-back partnership. The promotion of Steve Bould to assistant manager should iron that out from the Belgian’s game and with time I would expect them to become even stronger. Bacary Sagna is arguably the finest right-back in the league and Kieran Gibbs, whilst inexperienced, is improving.
An analysis of the chances created against Arsenal reveals they are highly susceptible to quick counter attacks. So often they are dominant in possession, yet in the moment of transition find themselves stretched and leave the defence exposed. There is nobody filling the hole behind the attacks, willing to occupy dangerous space and cut out threats – just as Gilberto Silva used to do.
Although Song has improved as an offensive player, that is not his role in the team. With the signing of Santi Cazorla and the expected participation of Abou Diaby and Jack Wilshere, there are better players within the squad to take on the creative burden. Although Arsenal struggled to create chances at times last season, I suspect that won’t be such a problem this year with so many different attacking options. As well as the aforementioned midfielders Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain is likely to play a bigger role, whilst Lukas Podolski and Olivier Giroud provide further alternatives.
With the attacking options available, the importance of Song’s role as a defensive midfielder is increased. The problem is that he does not regard himself as this type of player and lacks the discipline required to excel in that position. Whilst Mikel Arteta has adapted his game to provide a more solid base, Arsenal require a true holder to develop into genuine trophy contenders. It was evident that when Arteta was missing through injury they looked far more vulnerable.
To lose Song would not be the big blow that some suggest. Arsenal are quietly emerging as dark horses for a title challenge next season, even with their captain wanting out, following some excellent transfer business already. Allowing Song to leave and using the funds to replace him with a true defensive midfielder will make them far stronger as a unit. This time around, the attention from Barcelona should be welcomed.