Arsenal and Arsene Wenger are not unfamiliar with some of the best youth players in the world.
And although they are typically heavily criticised for such a paradigm of thought when it comes to player selection, their youthful exuberance, creativity and entertainment-value is a bench-mark that most clubs can only dream of achieving. Manchester City are getting there, but their method of buying all the hot youth products has yet to see much of a return, other than a £135M deficit.
Alex Song (CM) has been on the books at Arsenal for the better part of five years after joining from Ligue Unside Bastia. But back then he was a different person altogether. Then known by his longer surname of Alexandre Dimitri Song Billong. His recent decision to make his name more palatable also coincides with a change of the man himself–though Alan Davies and his trio of über–Gooners on the It’s Up For Grabs Now podcast like to remind all of who he once was, and that he plays the holding role, and that he scores the occasional goal.
Originally employed as a tough tackling holding-midfielder, Song rightfully found it difficult to get time on the pitch. Alexander Hleb, Mathieu Flamini andDenilson being players able to keep him from the side. But the departure of Hleb and Flamini left a gap that the strong Cameroonian was mildly able to fill. His inexperience showed through as he picked up a fair amount of bookings in his first full season in The Gunners’ first team (2008-09). His second-season in the side saw him come into the role slightly more, but his quality of play was criticized on multiple occasions for silly fouls in silly places, see: the mid-field line.
However, something’s drastically different this season. His midfield positioning is much less fixed as defensive, and the ability to press forward has revealed a different side of Song. Playing more as a central-midfielder, he’s already bagged four goals this season. That total already eclipses his efforts from his first two years. Chart 1 shows the fantasy output–as a quantifiable source of evaluation–of Song in the first thirteen matches of the last two seasons, and the current one.
From the plot, we see that he clearly progressed towards the player he is today, but this season sees him miles ahead of where he had been just two years ago. The latter, more-upward trend in the to-date 2010-11 data is thanks to the three-goals he has scored in three-games–three in his last four appearances. To make the transition a little more obvious; his forward play has seen him record less bookings this season–though his sending off against Sunderland was more a controversy.
It would be easy to cite Arsene Wenger as the reason for Song’smetamorphosis, but the credit should be due to two of his teammates; Cesc Fábregas (AM) and Jack Wilshere (CM). With Fábregas, what seems like, ever closer to leaving The Emirates Stadium, Song has shown that the Spaniard might not be missed quite as much as anticipated. Case-in-point being Fábregas’s dire performance against Newcastle United at the weekend. ButWilshere deserves perhaps more credit still. His central play and distribution have allowed Song to venture forward and contribute to the Gunner attack.
However, when along side Wilshere the positing is not fixed, the two rotate throughout the match. One going forward, while the other stays more central acting as a drop off point if movement of the ball forward is not possible. This action sees Arsenal move from a 4-5-1 formation, or a 4-4-2, to more of a 4-3-3 with Song, Wilshere and an interchange of Abou Diaby (CM) and Denilson (HM). The operation mirrors that of Chelsea’s midfield triangle of John Obi Mikel, Ramires and Michael Essien, but the result is less defensive and more… pretty.
From the heat maps on the left, we can see that in a year’s time, he’s moved up the field. His absence as a strict defensive- or holding-midfielder could be due to a change in formation and tactics from Wenger as well, so credit is due there too. Playing a high line and a pressing midfield would also cause Song to venture forward, but his goal-scoring endeavors scream in the effectual-negative of that. He is clearly further up the pitch, in a more offensively involved position.
In terms of how that affects his fantasy stats, the change is quite obvious; he’s already earned drastically more points. And at a value of just £5.5M, his return is bettered by only a few other players valued there or below. The one thing that tends to count against him is the same thing that plagues the Arsenal team as a unit, poor and inexperienced defending.
Song’s change in positioning has been realized multiple times this season. One of which saved Arsenal’s blushes against West Ham United when Song headed home the winner in the eighty-eighth minute to push Arsenal into second in the Premier League. A different theory also exists, and that is the new and improved(?) geriatric hair-color he’s been sporting. Regardless of its origins, the evolution of Alex Song has ultimately seen the dependence on Cesc Fábregas lessened. A comprehensive replacement he is not, but the change and the positive play without the Spaniard present could foreshadow the end of the battle with Barcelona. And the results may not be as bad as they seem.