When people think of Los Galácticos of Real Madrid, they typically rattle off the names of Zidane, Raúl, Ronaldo, Figo or Roberto Carlos before mentioning the MVP of that era, Claude Makélelé.
When Spain won the Euro 2008, it was Marcos Senna who enabled Xavi to be the player of the tournament. Since the arrival of Sergio Busquets, FC Barcelona and Spain have been the best teams at the club and international level.
As much as we love to see fancy dribbling and tiki-taka passing, one of the most under-appreciated positions is the defensive midfielder—the link between the defense and the offence.
Since the 2009 season, "Gooners" all over the world have seen the emergence of Alex Song. As valuable as Cesc Fàbregas, Robin van Persie and Samir Nasri are, it is Song who has become the most important player on the team.
Early Days at Arsenal
The cousin of international star Rigobert Song (appeared in '94, '98, '02 and '10 World Cups for Cameroon), Alex joined Arsenal in the 2005-06 season when he was only 18 years old after coming up through the youth ranks for the French club Bastia. During the 2005-06 and 2006-07 seasons, Song's appearances were limited, as he only played in matches when Wenger wanted to rest key players.
To gain more experience in the EPL, Song was loaned to Charlton Athletic for the 2006-07 season. Upon returning to Arsenal for the 2007-08 season, he was used sparingly, as Mathieu Flamini was the primary defensive midfielder of choice over the aging Gilberto Silva and the still young and unproven Song. In what turned out to be a double whammy, Arsenal lost both Silva and Flamini at the end of the season.
With Silva and Flamini out of the picture, Song was thrown into the fire. Despite featuring in nearly 50 competitions throughout the season, Song was not that impressive in the role Patrick Vieira and Silva set the standard for. Many supporters were expecting Song to be a short-term replacement for Silva, and thought Wenger would make a move for Felipe Melo, another Brazilian defensive midfielder who was in good form for Fiorentina and the National Team at the time. For many supporters, it was frustrating at times, but the only consolation was that Song was reliable enough to feature in as many games as he did in his first full season for the Gunners.
For the 2009-10 season, Wenger decided to stick with the Cameroonian, a decision that had many people, myself included, concerned about Wenger's strategies. In a season marred by injuries and constant shuffling of lineups, the one constant was Alex Song as the lone defensive midfielder. Over the course of the campaign, Song became the most improved player on the squad and gave everyone the assurance that Wenger made the right move by remaining loyal to No. 17. When Arsenal switched to a 4-3-3 formation, Song enabled players like Fàbregas, Abou Diaby and Denilson to push up more, which resulted in better goal-to-game ratios for midfielders who were not usually considered scoring threats.
Song kept things simple and started to win challenges and intercept passes on a regular basis. As a proper DM, he maintained a short game—keeping his passes shorter than 10 meters. Knowing that he did not have to rely on long passes and taking shots from anywhere near the 18, Song emerged as the link between the defenders and attackers. Despite Fàbregas' impressive goal and assist numbers in a season shortened due to injury, Song stood out as the most improved and one of the most important players in the club.
This season, not only has Song maintained his form from the prior season, he has also been able to bring more value to the table. Perhaps it has something to do with the skyrocketing development of Jack Wilshere, or maybe it is the blond hair that the Cameroonian has been rocking, but the word that comes to mind this season has been "beast."
In addition to maintaining his hard knocks style of play by disrupting opposing teams, the 2010-11 version of Alex Song has also added an attacking game to his repertoire, thus totally confusing any opponent. Who would have guessed Song to have three goals and two assists at this point of the season?
In the span of one week, Song scored against Shakhtar Donestk and Manchester City. Although Song's goals were not of the caliber of Nasri, the goals were more a function of Song's sense of awareness and knowing where to be in the event of a deflection or loose ball.
A year ago at this time, Song would not have had the confidence to be that close to the goal, but now that the blond-haired midfielder has established his ability as a defending midfielder, all teams must be wary of Song at any point during a match from now on.
Another interesting quality with Song has been his dribbling ability this season. Watching Song is certainly not the same as watching Robinho or Cristiano Ronaldo, but his size, strength and ability to change direction enables him to push forward and create opportunities for his teammates.
At first supporters were nervous seeing Song dribble more this season, but after recent results, Song looks like he knows what he is doing, unlike Diaby, who has the tendency (but has improved tremendously) to take one too many touches.
Sure, he has been rough at times and has accumulated his fair share of yellow cards, but that is his job. His role is to be the enforcer, a player who is not afraid to be physical, yet also think with an offensive mentality.
While it is probably premature to label Song as the new Vieira or Michael Essien, Song is showing that he is a must play at all times. While Denilson can handle some of the responsibilities of a defending midfielder, there is nobody on the team who can do what Song does.
As much as we would like Diaby to be the next Vieira, Diaby's heart is set on attacking. Whenever van Persie is absent, there are strikers like Theo Walcott, Nicklas Bendtner, Carlos Vela and Marouane Chamakh available. When Fàbregas goes down, Tomáš Rosický, Nasri and Wilshere are options. But if Song goes down, there is no plan B.
Song is definitely a top-tier defensive midfielder through his impressive form and reliability over the past two seasons. If he can maintain his current form and continue to improve all aspects of his game, he could one day surpass Gilberto Silva and be up there with Patrick Vieira as one of the top defensive midfielders the Gunners have had in recent times. Zidane once described Makélelé as the engine of Real Madrid.
On a team that is also known for their attacking prowess, Song is that engine that allows the boys in front of him to do their jobs effectively.