The last couple of days have flown by in the build-up to Sunderland’s visit, the actual game, and the inevitable debates that take place in the aftermath of a game. During this period Arsenal also agreed a deal with Barcelona for the sale of Alex Song. It was a transfer that came out of the blue and was completed at express speed, at least by the recent standards of drawn out sagas that Gooners have experienced.
There are many different stories circulating in the media but few have provided any concrete sources. Some suggest that Song’s agent had been peddling the midfielder around Europe and wanted a bumper increase in his contract. Others have suggested that the player had attitude issues, was lazy, often arrived late for training, and tended to ignore instructions from the coaching staff. Presumably, the latter story has been leaked by the Gunners as it’s attributed to anonymous club sources.
I don’t normally believe unattributed quotes and unverifiable reports but there seems to be some truth in Song’s case. The most striking aspect of the whole deal has been the ease with which Wenger has sanctioned the transfer. The manager fought hard to keep Cesc, Nasri, and RvP. His comments before and after these players left showed he rated them very highly. I don’t think the same can be said about his reflections on the departure of Song.
In my opinion the key to this transfer was Wenger’s belief that the player can be replaced. Since he’s a very good man manager and cultivates excellent relationships, it can be assumed Arsene would have found a way to make things work with Song despite any attitude issues if he really felt it imperative to hold on to Song. Let’s not forget Arsenal had a strong position from the contract point of view.
At first glance this seems strange. Song was voted 2nd best player of the year by the fans in the annual poll. He picked up 11 assists in the League last season and formed a very effective partnership with Van Persie. Together the duo contributed 64 percent of Arsenal’s 74 Premiership goals. Why would Wenger sell his second best player without a fight when all efforts to hold on to the best failed?
There seem to be a number of factors involved. Firstly, there is the case of inconsistency on the part of Song. There is a myth in the Arsenalsphere that Song started neglecting his defensive duties and bombed forward too often. Many associate assists with a forward thinking approach but forget the fact that many of his key passes came from deep. The problem with Song was not that he became too attack oriented but that he simply wasn’t consistent enough when it came to defensive awareness and concentration. Over the last few years there have been numerous examples where Arsenal have conceded goals not because Song had gone forward but because he didn’t do what he was supposed to even when he’d stayed back.
In short, Song just did not read the game well defensively at a level of consistency needed if a side wishes to win the major titles.
That alone would not have been enough though. The second, and perhaps clinching, factor here is that Arsene knows there is a replacement available who is at least as good if not better. I’ll be very surprised if the Gunners don’t sign at least one more player in midfield.
Arsene could make a like-for-like change by getting someone like M’Vila in or he could bring a different player like Sahin into the squad and adapt to the loss of Song through tactical changes. In either case the key point is that Le Boss does not think it will be as tough to replace Song as it has been with the other big names who’ve moved on.
That doesn’t mean it will be easy. Song had a physical presence on the pitch. You could see him dig his heels around a ball and shrug off a challenge that would easily be deemed a foul in other Leagues. With that physical presence he helped Arsenal bring the ball out from the back which is vital to the way Arsene wants his teams to play. In his absence the Gunners have struggled on that front and it tends to expose the defence.
Song was also a tenacious player who kept chasing the ball even if the opponent beat him initially. That’s pestering quality is valuable to the way Arsenal defend as they tend to go after the ball instead of holding a strong defensive shape. There are few others (non-defenders) in the side who can do it as often and as well.
Finally, there was the case of Song’s creative contribution. Last season the Cameroonian attempted 90 through-balls and was successful with 24 of those. To put that in perspective, David Silva attempted 77 and was successful with only 18 while Liverpool (entire squad) completed 46 out of 105 and United 39 out of 102. Arsenal, as a team, attempted 294 with 87 finding a teammate. The corresponding numbers for City were 321 and 75.
What we see here is a variable that provides a good indication of the differences between the style of play of these teams and within that the relative qualities that Song possessed. He bettered Silva in attempts and success rate. That’s a clear sign of quality even if the actual accuracy is less than one in three as it’s one of the toughest passes to execute. There is absolutely no doubt Song was a big, big player for the Gunners last season and had a massive hand in the limited success of the quick wingers on the flank.
Against Sunderland, the Gunners didn’t really need the physical side or even defensive tenacity but they clearly missed his creativity from deeper areas.
Of course, Sahin can plug the creative hole whereas M’Vila can easily replicate the physical aspect of Song’s game. But Arsenal cannot play two in place of one so it’ll be interesting to see how Arsene goes about replacing Song. Even if Arsene is confident, I have a feeling the Gunners will struggle in the short term.
I’ll look at midfield options in detail after the transfer window closes so will pick up on this thread at a later time, for now I also want to explore the player’s perspective.
This is another aspect of the transfer that I found difficult to understand. Why would Alex Song want to move from a team where he has such a central role to one where he’d be a squad player? I never doubted the fact that Fabregas will be important to Barcelona but it’s difficult to see Song being a regular. It seems to me he’ll be a player who is introduced late in the games when the side wishes to defend a lead or is used in away games where opponents are likely to offer a strong physical challenge. Apart from that he’ll mostly be a back-up utility player.
That seems like such a waste of talent. And why would Song want to fritter away his career on the bench even if it’s the world’s best bench? Sure, he’s likely to have a better shot at medals and will quite possibly make more money but is that reason enough? Clichy, Nasri, and Cesc have played a significant part in title winning sides and RvP is likely to do the same even if the title winning aspect is up for debate. For Song that does not seem to be the case so it’s difficult to see ambition as a reason.
Maybe it is about the money, or the glory, or about being underappreciated, or something else. Time will tell.
For Barcelona it’s a good deal as they get a high quality utility player for good value. Wonder if Cesc had any part to play in this transfer?
Finally, I want to touch upon the manner of departure. Van Persie went from hero to villain after releasing one ill-advised statement. In contrast, Song had the following to say in a recent interview with Sky Sports,
I am not going to lie if I said there is no interest but I am at Arsenal and I am happy at Arsenal.
Really? If I add up the events – Arsene Wenger’s uncharacteristic curtness about the transfer, the speed at which the transfer has been agreed, and the rumours about attitude issues doing the rounds – I find it very difficult to believe Song was happy at Arsenal and that Arsenal were happy with him.
When Van Persie released his statement I was among the few who believed it was a fairly honest one. The player genuinely didn’t believe Arsenal were doing enough to win. With Song on the other hand, we have what appears to be a deceitful and empty comment aimed solely at maintaining PR.
I am not surprised but really disappointed with the way people have accepted this from Song while hating RvP. It’s like saying “We’re ok with whatever you do or think as long as you put out statements that say what we want to hear. Not the truth, not your honest opinion, just something that makes us feel better in that moment.”
I don’t blame the fans though. It’s a broader problem with the human race. We can’t always handle the truth, we need simplified narratives that suit our sensibilities. Politicians have mastered that art and that’s what we get from almost everyone else who is in the public eye. If individuals can’t do it they get PR firms to do it. Then again, writing such stuff on a blog in the public domain is akin to committing PR suicide so I’ll stop before I do irreparable damage!
Song has moved from the heart of London to the fringes of Barcelona. He must have his reasons but they’re not important at the moment. Arsene has to perform that heart transplant soon though. It could be a matter of life and death. It seems he’s found a donor, and the tissue’s a match, now he must perform the surgery and hope to avoid complications. Has it set your pulse racing yet!?
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