Arsenal Debate: What Is Alex Song's Best Position?

Aditya M SCorrespondent IMay 14, 2012

LONDON, ENGLAND - FEBRUARY 04:  Alex Song of Arsenal in action during the Barclays Premier League match between Arsenal and Blackburn Rovers at Emirates Stadium on February 4, 2012 in London, England.  (Photo by Paul Gilham/Getty Images)
Paul Gilham/Getty Images

If you want to talk about meteoric rises, then look no further than Arsenal midfielder Alex Song. The once defensive laughing stock, the bumbling player who could do no right, has seen his stock rise massively over the last three seasons and is now a mainstay in Arsenal’s team.

Playing ahead of Arsenal’s defense, Song has had impressive performances without anyone really backing him up (Coquelin hasn’t got a fair shot due to injuries and Frimpong lacks experience), meaning that Song’s name on the team sheet has been a guarantee.

Yet as the season has progressed, there have been doubts raised over Song’s suitability to the defensive midfield role. Arsenal’s pursuit of Yann M’Vila (from the Daily Express) might indicate that Arsene Wenger, too, has his doubts over Song’s suitability as the shield of Arsenal’s talented yet structurally poor defense.

While there is no doubt that questions over a player’s quality arise only when results aren’t favoring you, there is definitely merit to some of the criticism that Song has received.

Thomas Vermaelen might be a defender, but he does have this frustrating yet sometimes hugely successful tendency to wander far too high up the pitch. Sometimes it results in goals, like the ones conceded against Norwich, and on the other occasions it results in a 95th minute winner against Newcastle.

Either way, it requires Song to sit back and do what his position demands him to do: defend.

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Koscielny might be one hell of a defender, but believe it or not, he cannot do everything by himself. This is where Song’s tendency to be caught up high up the pitch can be irking.

That is not to say that he is a slouch going forward. To be honest, he is far from that. He has proved to be one of the league’s best when it comes to delivering pinpoint through balls. His assists for Robin van Persie’s goals against Liverpool, Everton and Norwich were majestic to say the least.

STOKE ON TRENT, ENGLAND - APRIL 28: Jermaine Pennant of Stoke City holds off a challenge from Alex Song of Arsenal during the Barclays Premier League match between Stoke City and Arsenal at Britannia Stadium on April 28, 2012 in Stoke on Trent, England.
Clive Brunskill/Getty Images

Yet the question we have to ask ourselves is: Do we want our “defensive midfielder” to shirk his defensive duties in favor for those majestic assists, or would we rather have him sit back, protect the back four and not chip in with these assists?

I would rather have him do the latter. This isn’t because I don’t enjoy his assists (we all do, including Robin). It's just that I'd rather have a player in my team who adds more structural stability to the entire side, especially a team like Arsenal, whose basic instinctive tendency is to attack, no matter the circumstances.

I don’t mind the occasional foray, but the timing of these runs has shown a lack of understanding of his role as the team’s primary defensive shield.

This is why signing M’Vila makes so much sense. He is widely known to be a midfield anchor, a disciplined defensive midfielder, and yet his statistics show that when it comes to passing, he can hold his own excellently. He would add bite to the Arsenal midfield and yet not compromise Arsenal’s philosophy of playing beautiful football.

Some might say that M’Vila isn’t necessarily the answer, with  his quality and temperament still in doubt. I haven’t seen much, and the most I have seen of him are YouTube videos. But the stats do back up the fact that defensively he is more solid than Song.

The margin isn’t much, but football is a game that is decided by the smallest of margins. With 3.1 tackles a game and 2.5 interceptions, M’Vila’s stats are better than those of Song, who has managed 2.8 tackles coupled with two interceptions.

Even in terms of clearances, M’Vila trumps Song, with the Frenchman managing 1.8 clearances to Song’s 1.2. Even in terms of discipline, M’Vila trumps Song, with the Rennes midfielder managing a mere 0.8 fouls a game to Song’s 2.2.

But the explanation to this could be very simple: Arsenal, being a more attacking team, are more prone to counterattacks, and Song would be required to make more cynical fouls.

So the question that arises is: What happens to Song? Do Arsenal cash in on the Cameroonian and sell him, or do they keep him? There are bound to be plenty of suitors for him, and there is no doubt that he will achieve a good fee. The Daily Mail even linked him with a move away from the Emirates to Juventus, but for now it remains nothing but a rumor.

The other option is to keep him. After all, the M’Vila deal is far from finalized, with Inter Milan extremely interested in snapping up the Rennes midfielder (from the Telegraph). If Arsenal repeat the heroics from last season’s Mata deal and he ends up going to Milan or some other club, the wise choice would be to stick with Song.

If Arsenal do go into the 2012-13 season with Song as their defensive midfielder, it wouldn’t be a disaster by any means. While he does have his flaws, he is still one of the better defensive midfielders in the Premier League. He has come a long way in a short time and deserves much praise for coming back and showing the Gunners’ faithful that he is indeed a talented player.

But the fact of the matter is that he still prefers the creative side of the game, a more “destructive” role. And it is my opinion that Arsenal would do well to have someone of a more defensive mindset guarding their defense.

I’m not saying we need to go out into the market and sign someone like Van Bommel or De Jong. No! We already have Frimpong and Vermaelen if we do need to teach someone a lesson.

But with someone like M’Vila there in the market, the wise choice—keeping success in mind—would be to snap the Frenchman at the first opportunity, before the vultures start to circle and it starts becoming a bidding war, something Arsenal will never win.

Also, one has to wonder if Arsene Wenger will truly sell Song. He is young, has craft, has decent technique—all assets that Wenger is known to appreciate.

Keeping Song would be a wise decision, not only because he is quality, but also because in today’s footballing world where one game is followed by another before even the supporters have time to recover let alone the players, the value and importance of squad depth can never be understated.

But the question remains about his best position. Is it at defensive midfield? Central midfield would free him to follow his urges and would add a lot of stability to the side.

Central midfield, along with an out-and-out defensive midfield playing behind him, is the position many have touted for him, but is he really suited to that role? Would he be a better bet than the likes of Arteta or Wilshere?

One thing I’ve noticed is that, while Song is capable of putting in delicious chipped balls for Van Persie, he does have this extremely frustrating habit of trying the same thing far too often. And if he does want to make the transition to a central midfield, he will have to retain possession better.

Over the last two seasons, we have seen Jack Wilshere and Mikel Arteta play in the central midfield role, and both have done a top-notch job, albeit in different ways. While Arteta remains a passer, keeping the ball ticking over, Wilshere is at his best with the ball at his feet where he can take on opponents.

And the stats show the contrasting styles between the experienced Arteta and the talented and young Wilshere. With a whopping 76.9 passes a game, Arteta leads the passing charts for Arsenal. Wilshere, on the other hand, averages only 54.4 passes a game.

With a passing success of 90.8, Arteta’s stats are once again more impressive than Wilshere’s with 86.1. Arteta attempts 0.7 passes a game, though, while Wilshere attempts 1.7 dribbles a game, indicating the Englishman’s preference to take on his opponents.

With 66.4 passes a game, Song falls short of Arteta’s impressive numbers, although he does remain ahead of Wilshere. But in terms of dribbles per game, Wilshere is ahead of Song. With 1.7 dribbles a game Wilshere is ahead of the 1.1 dribbles by Song last season and the 0.8 dribbles Song has managed this season.

In short, Song is neither a passer in the mould of Arteta nor a dribbler like Jack.

But with 0.7 accurate through balls per game, Song remains well ahead of those achieved by Arteta this season (0.2) and Wilshere last season (0.3). In fact, Song leads the league when it comes to accurate through balls. This just strengthens my belief that Song is more of a creative player rather than a destructive player.

The fact is, I’m not really sure what Song’s best position is. At defensive midfield, he lacks the positional discipline to play that role in the long run, and in central midfield, I’m not sure whether his passing or dribbling is most suited in that role.

This article isn’t a reactionary piece to Arsenal’s indifferent form. It’s an effort to understand what Song does best. I don’t mean to pull Song down in any way, and neither am I accusing him of not being a poor player.

But his positioning is something I find risky to the balance of the team, and it might be because he is more of a creative player by nature rather than a defensive or a destructive one.

I haven’t really taken to the suggestion that he should make a transition into a central midfielder. His passing is a tad wayward to be successful in that role in the long run, and while he has the physicality to muscle past his opponents, his dribbling skills fall short of those of Wilshere.

There have been countless instances when Wenger has moulded a player from one position to another with tremendous success, and there is a possibility that he might do so with Song. I wouldn’t put it past Wenger or Song. But not every move is guaranteed to come off well.

It really begs the question: What is Song’s best suited role? Could Song end up being a jack of all trades and a master of none?