Alex’s Song is Sung. The Cameroon international midfielder has worn the Arsenal jersey for the final time. At the end of an extraordinary journey, the player once so dreadful he was booed off by his own fans will join arguably the greatest club side in the game’s history: FC Barcelona.
On the face of it, it’s a strange transfer for both clubs and the player. Song is not a typical Barca player, so why have they bought him? He is a vital part of Arsenal’s system, so why have we sold him? And why has the player left a guaranteed first-team spot for a place on the Barca bench?
I suppose we could deal with those questions one at a time. Barca want Song because he is atypical, not in spite of the fact. Having lost Seydou Keita in the summer, they want a player with similar physical presence. His versatility also appeals: last night they lined up with Javier Mascherano in defence; Song has both the defensive attributes and the ball skills to play as an adventurous centre-half when required.
The question of why Arsenal have chosen to sell Song is far harder to answer. For several years now, he’s been a vital cog in our system. After the loss of Mathieu Flamini, he stepped up to become an integral part of the midfield. His improvement has been dramatic – and boy did it have to be. When he first stepped in to the side as an awkward, shuffling 17-year old, he looked to lack even the most basic technique. However, a loan spell at Charlton and the odd Carling Cup run-out dramatically improved him, and he evolved in to a competent and occasionally creative midfielder. Last season his progress saw him frequently playing in a more advanced position, providing assist after assist for Robin van Persie. Song is arguably Arsene’s greatest developmental success, so why sell him now? As far as I can see, there are three main reasons: economics, tactics, and attitude.
Economics: £15m for a player who cost just a couple of million from Bastia is very good business. Song’s agent was demanding exorbitant wages, and perhaps Arsene felt that salary budget could be better invested elsewhere.
Tactics: As the manager has been so keen to point out this week, Arsenal have an abundance of central midfielders. If Abou Diaby stays fit and Jack Wilshere’s comeback remains vaguely on schedule, we can add them to a list that also includes Mikel Arteta, Aaron Ramsey, Santi Cazorla, Tomas Rosicky, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Emmanuel Frimpong, and Francis Coquelin. Over the past two seasons Arsene has shifted the formation slightly to go with two deeper-lying midfielders behind one more advanced creative player. With the news that he’s set to replace Song with the significantly less physical Nuri Sahin, it’s clear he now feels he can afford to go without a physical, ‘destroyer’ type, opting instead for a more mobile, possession-led midfield trio.
Attitude: Arsene has admitted that Song made it plain he was keen to go. If rumours are to be believed, his attitude on the Asia tour was poor, and the manager was left in little doubt about the player’s desire to move on. It’s worth noting that after the departure of Robin van Persie, Song was the final remaining client of one Darren Dein. Perhaps the club wanted to take this opportunity to wipe the slate clean and rid the club of any disruptive influences in one fell swoop.
As for Song himself, he’s not a guy who lacks confidence or self belief: if he’s joining Barca, it’s because he believes he can play an important role in one of the sport’s greatest teams. Good luck to him – he’ll have to step it up another notch or three all over again.
So thats the whys and wherefores taken care off. Now on to the thornier issue of whether or not it’s a good thing for the club. From an economic perspective, it certainly is. From an attitude perspective, it probably is. But I do worry about it from a tactical point of view. Just a few weeks ago many fans were clamouring for Arsene to bring in Yann M’vila as potential support and competition for Song. Now we’re likely to enter the season with neither.
I believe it may have been me who originally said: “Song is not a defensive midfielder – he’s just our most defensive midfielder”. A neat quip, but now our most defensive midfielders are either relatively untested prospects like Coquelin and Frimpong, or guys like Arteta, Diaby, and Wilshere – midfielders who aren’t very defensive at all. Arteta is our most disciplined midfielder, but he lacks Song’s considerable physical clout.
It may not be a problem. Arsene is doubtless inspired by the way the Spanish midgets hypnotized the competition during the European Championships. A midfield containing the likes of Arteta, Wilshere, Sahin and Cazorla could prove impossible to dispossess. But I can’t help worrying about the fact that one of the weediest midfields in the Premier League just got a whole lot weedier.
Song’s departure also puts a slightly different spin on our summer. A few weeks ago we had brought in Podolski, Giroud and Cazorla, and still had Van Persie. Now we’ve lost the Dutchman and, to most people’s surprise, Song. Earlier in the summer, that trio of signings looked like a considered statement of intent: we were finally loosening the purse strings to improve the squad. By selling Song and Van Persie, we’ve actually covered those costs entirely. Once again, Arsenal head towards the end of the summer in profit. It’s almost as if we planned it like this.
We only had one Song. And I can’t help but feel a little alarmed that Arsene doesn’t look in much of a rush to replace him.