Alex Song has now scored three goals in three games. Excellent for a midfielder and astonishing for someone supposed to be a holding midfielder. Add the fact that all were crucial goals – first one against a determined Shakhtar side, game-killer against City, and the winner against the Hammers – and we have to acknowledge Song has been immense for us in the last couple of weeks.
The transformation of a player deemed useless by the Misery Brigade just a couple of seasons ago seems to be a continuous process. Last season he made the holding role his own. Many could not think of a team without Song in it. People thought our defence would be shredded to bits if Song wasn’t there in front of them. Such was his impact that there were demands for signing another Song like player as a back-up or even as his partner.
This season we have seen the Cameroonian add an adventurous streak to his game. It started with a few bursts up field and has slowly evolved into regular runs in attacking areas. It seems Song is graduating from the Holding role into a Box-to-Box style.
When Song scored against Bolton I was a little cautious and wrote that I’m not convinced by this approach. We saw him continue his attacking forays and even paid the price in a couple of games, most notably against West Brom. The experts on the internet had seen enough and passed their verdict. Unsurprisingly, there was a clamour for Song to stick to his defensive duties.
As regular readers will remember, we had a discussion on this topic a short while back and the consensus seemed to be that this seems like a strategic/tactical change. Most people who commented here were not against Song bursting forward as long as someone else was there to stay behind.
In recent games we’ve seen Denilson, Wilshere, and Cesc perform that role admirably. Our midfielders have shown better understanding and at least one, if not two, tend to stay closer to the defence. The results are there for all to see – three clean sheets in a run of five wins. Obviously we are doing something right.
In his post-match press conference after the win over the Hammers, Arsene made a very interesting comment about Song.
He has got the taste to go forward, even if I think a little too much sometimes for a holding midfielder!
By and large, Le Boss was praising Song but there is more to it. To me that comment shows Song’s transformation is a work in progress. This can be further seen from these comments attributed to Arsene,
He sees there is a big competition in midfield and that helps, because nobody is guaranteed a place.
Song has improved his engine. Before he was less mobile, now he does not need a breather when he goes and comes back, that has added something to his quality.
Since he has more stamina capacity, when we win the ball, he is on the move straight away and, when his timing is, he arrives at the right moment in the box.
That makes a lot of sense, doesn’t it? Obviously all our players can see there is plenty of competition in midfield even when Ramsey is injured. Many thought Cesc was joking when last year he said that his place was under threat due to the emergence of the Welshman. But the fact is we are building a phenomenal midfield (as a part of a fantastic squad) and it will motivate everyone to continuously raise their game.
What we must understand is that improving as a player or adding a new dimension to one’s game doesn’t happen overnight. While it is largely down to the player to make individual improvements that alone is not sufficient. Football is a team game and one player’s movement and work affects the others around him.
Some fans analyze the game in isolation. They think if the manager tells someone to shoot they can get up and start shooting more from the next day. Or if the manager tells them to sit in front of the back four then they’ll just be able to hold fort. It doesn’t work that way.
Adding something significant to one’s game takes time and effort. Players mature over time and not overnight, even if it seems that way to those who are quick to judge based on short memories.
Similarly teams mature over a period of time. City have signed plenty of proven players but it’s not working out for them. That doesn’t mean the players they’ve signed are useless or that their manager is a fool. Just that bringing so many players together, even of high quality, and making them perform in unison is not as simple as it would be in Football Manager.
It seems to me that we are in phase II of Song’s development. In phase I he moved from being a clumsy, rough tackling, unreliable defender to a hard-working, strong, physical defensive midfielder who could hold his own. But he knows there is more in him physically, technically, and mentally. And so does the manager.
As Arsene said, he has a better engine and stamina these days. It was one of the things I’d noticed. Song was able to go up and down the pitch almost effortlessly. In a few moments this season, we’ve also seen that Song can pick the final ball or provide the finishing touch with his head or feet. He has the vision and the instinct.
Of course there are some rough edges. It will take time to sort them out. I’m sure the Cameroonian works on them in training under the watchful eye of Arsene. But the major differences can only be made in match situations. In effect, what we are seeing right now is an effort to harness the latent potential that Song has.
Obviously, as I said earlier, it cannot happen in isolation. That means the others will also have to adapt their game. This will be a process of improvement/adaptation and will take its own time. In the interim, we might see some mistakes, lost opportunities, or even absolute blunders. That’s part of the game, so to speak. It will be up to the manager to ensure that we minimize the negatives while we develop the positives.
I’m one of those who really loves watching these transformations. At times the negatives can be frustrating and the results depressing. But at the end of the day I can learn so much about the game and witness something truly magical. We can all appreciate a beautiful flower but watching the transformation from a bud to the full bloom is something else. Certainly beats the joy one gets from telling a mate that the team you support is better than the team he supports!
At this point if someone asks me what is Alex Song’s role at Arsenal? I’d say I don’t know exactly but he is immense for us right now and on his way to being among the world’s best. And watching him blossom will one of the most cherished memories of my lifetime.