By Carlo Garganese
If you are a member of an Alexandre Song fan club, you should click out of this article right now as the next 700 words will not be pleasant reading. If you are an Arsenal supporter, please do stay because this feature may just cheer you up following a frustrating past seven days.
The above paragraph will probably sound like a paradox because over the last few years, Song has developed into a real fan favourite at the Emirates. So much so that in 2011-12 he finished second behind Robin van Persie in Arsenal's Player of the Season award, as voted for by the club's fans.
Arsenal.com's congratulations to Song exalted: "Over the years, Alex has been an essential anchor at the base of Arsenal’s midfield, providing defensive cover for a free-flowing side committed to attack."
While official websites are naturally positive towards their own staff, never could an analysis be so wide of the mark. The hard truth is that Alex Song is incapable of anchoring the midfield and incapable of providing defensive cover. In the last four campaigns, Arsenal have conceded a whopping 170 league goals. In every one of these seasons (except 2009-10 when Tottenham shipped the same amount), Arsenal have let in more strikes than every other team in the Premier League top four.
The main reason for this is not a shaky back five or Arsene Wenger's tactical naivety – even if both are very significant factors – it is because Song cannot protect his defence.
In modern football where you can count on one hand the number of genuinely world-class stoppers, controlling and managing the midfield is the best form of defence. This is why teams with feeble backlines have still been relatively successful. An example is Netherlands' journey to the 2010 World Cup final, where Mark van Bommel and Nigel de Jong expertly shielded a modest quartet of Van der Wiel, Heitinga, Mathijsen and Van Bronckhorst.
Mark of a great | Song is unable to protect his defence like Van Bommel used toSong is too undisciplined to be an anchorman. When his team-mates are in possession, he can't resist the urge to join in offensively – thus vacating his post and leaving his side open to punishing counterattacks. When the opposition has the ball, Song's spatial awareness, positioning and reading of the game are poor. These are skills that cannot be taught, you either have them or you don't. And Song's sluggish speed and acceleration prevent him from recovering situations that he fails to foresee.
There are too many games to recount where Arsenal have been fatally exploited due to gaping holes in Song's territory. The most high-profile recent example is February's 4-0 Champions League pummelling in Italy at the hands of AC Milan.
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Barcelona's signing of Song is certainly a peculiar one. A much over-looked aspect of the Blaugrana philosophy is their ferocious pressing tactics. Not only is Song slow and cumbersome in closing down opponents, he is often accused of being lazy too. This will not be tolerated in Catalunya if he is to be a success.
The 24-year-old does not move the ball on quickly and seems ill-suited to the Blaugrana's fast one-touch, tiki-taka, pass-and-move game. While Song is certainly a better passer than Javier Mascherano, there are concerns that just like the Argentine he may struggle executing the short and sharp triangles with Xavi, Iniesta, Busquets, Messi and Co.
|Song seems ill-suited to the Blaugrana's fast one-touch, tiki-taka, pass-and-move game. He may struggle executing short and sharp triangles
Mascherano was subsequently shifted into defence in an attempt to cover for the persistent injuries to captain Carles Puyol – and he has not looked back since. There is every possibility Song could also be used at the back, but this would be far from advisable in a big game against a Real Madrid, Bayern Munich or Manchester City. In his past outings in defence, Song has looked awkward and insecure.
Song will start his Barcelona career as a squad player, and will certainly deepen a rather thin senior roster. But €19 million (£15m) is a lot of money to spend on a benchwarmer, and Tito Vilanova – who personally requested the midfielder – is leaving himself open to criticism.
While Vilanova's predecessor Pep Guardiola made a few bad signings himself – Dmytro Chygrynskiy at €25m (£19.6m) the most infamous - it is hard to imagine Guardiola ever sanctioning a move for such an overrated and ill-suited player as Song. Not for the first time in a transfer dealing between Arsenal and Barcelona, it is the English side who will get the better side of the bargain.
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