Arsenal Faults: Alex Song and Gael Clichy Are Liabilities
"I want to add more goals to my game" he said. He wanted to get forward more; he wanted to get involved in the final third. But which Arsenal player was it that said this? Fabregas? Wilshere? The ambitions and dreams came from a young, now platinum blond Cameroonian defensive midfielder Alex Song.
Already this season he's gotten as many goals for Arsenal as he had during his previous five seasons at the club. His assist for Samir Nasri against Partizan Belgrade showed quick feet in tight spaces, particularly in the final third.
But what was most telling about his contribution that night was how much space Partizan midfielder Cleo was allowed to have, as a defensively gracious Squillaci allowed a 25 yard goal to put fright into onlooking fans for the next half hour.
This presents an interesting playing dilemma. For a club whose attacking prowess is dictated by the free movement of attack minded players, is there a problem with his more proactive intent? Sergio Busquets, a player who has improved immeasurably in his first two seasons with Barcelona, still manages to make inroads in the opposition's box. Not all defensive midfielders need to approach the game with a John Obi Mikel approach of tactical solidity or a Claude Makelele all-tackling approach.
But the connection between defensive midfielders, the overarching spirit of the role that makes it such a key position in the modern game is self sacrifice. The reason that such midfielders are taken for granted or under appreciated is that they are essentially meant to be boring.
In a three man midfield system in particular, the holding player takes the ball from defenders and plays simple passes. Even the tackling aspect of the role becomes secondary if the team has enough possession; tackling only needs to be done on a counter attack or when a mistake has been committed in the team's half. Over complicating the position with forward passes threatens to lose the team possession and in dangerous areas.
Alex Song's problem this season is that his passing and forward runs have put Arsenal under huge pressure. Instead of playing easy passes sideways and back to keep possession, he often plays higher up the pitch and attempts through balls to the forwards, which are often crowded out by opposing players. It's noticeable that when teams counterattack against Arsenal, there is a massive gap between midfield and defense. Although Arsenal's defenders lack strength and height, they are very often overexposed by Song's lack of positional discipline.
Clearly a talented player, Song needs to play deeper, almost in a sweeper position as Busquets does for Barcelona, which will allow the fullbacks to push forward and wide. He plays a similar position for Cameroon, and although he has stated that he doesn't enjoy that position, it's the role he looks most comfortable in.
An Arsenal player that is looking less and less likely to improve, however, is Gael Clichy. Once considered an apt understudy to Ashley Cole, Clichy is proving game after game that he is deeply defensively suspect. In the 3-1 loss last season against Manchester United, it was clear that Edwin Van Der Sar was given instructions to distribute the ball in Clichy's direction. It was understood that Clichy was the weak point, and Nani was subsequently successful at almost every attack launched down the right.
It's clear that Clichy is very positive going forward. His speed is a wonderful asset and he is Arsenal's best crosser of the ball. However, it seems that either Arsenal are too used to attacking down the right or are otherwise unwilling to move the ball left for Clichy to run onto. They often prefer Sagna, who has all the traits of a great right back except consistent crossing. Cesc Fabgras' over reliance on his right foot, often giving shallow passes to the left, doesn't help to use Clichy as an attacking outlet. But the left-back's lack of physicality is often exposed, and combined with a fairly questionable tactic of standing off opponents until they can get a cross off, making him a dangerous liability waiting to be taken advantage of.
Alex Song's issues can be remedied with time, experience and discipline. Gael Clichy, however, has long since looked a confident and dominant player. As long as both remain problematic, Arsenal will be undone against larger teams.
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