By Oliver Platt
For a club that has championed an ethos of attacking, passing football since the arrival of Arsene Wenger as manager, the much-repeated insistence, over the years, that the shortcoming holding Arsenal back is a lack of hard as nails, no-nonsense defensive players could be perceived as slightly odd.
Wenger's brand of football has led the club to three Premier League titles, and it will be expected that the principles he introduced are retained long after he is gone. Through his reign, though, the interest, bordering on obsession, with the tenacious has remained.
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The calls have quietened somewhat in defence since Wojciech Szczesny, Laurent Koscielny and Thomas Vermaelen established themselves as capable options. While Koscielny has come to be recognised as an outstanding piece of business, Vermaelen, in particular, was celebrated immediately for his power and explosiveness and early ability to rip left-footed shots from 30 yards.
Then there is Alex Song, subject of interest from Barcelona and a player who does not quite fit the mould. Having started his career, with Bastia in France, as a centre-back, it might be reasonably expected that, like his cousin (who he refers to as an uncle), Rigobert Song, the Cameroon international focuses primarily on the defensive side of the game.
To an extent, he does. Song is an industrious tackler, reads the game well and brings a physical presence to the centre of the park. That, though, is not the full extent of his contribution – the 24-year-old is keen to burst forward to support the attack and although he rarely ventures all the way into the opposition penalty area, scoring only one goal last season, he has demonstrated a real knack for creating chances, recording 11 Premier League assists during 2011-12.
That was the fourth highest tally in the division, behind only David Silva, Juan Mata and Antonio Valencia and ahead of the likes of Gareth Bale, Nani and Samir Nasri. His lobbed passes behind the defence, of which Robin van Persie was usually the beneficiary, became a familiar sight at the Emirates Stadium.
The issue lies in how this attacking enthusiasm might detract from his ability to fulfil his responsibilities at the opposite end of the pitch. Last summer, there were clamours for Wenger to prise Scott Parker away from West Ham. The manager resisted, and he joined rivals Tottenham. This year, although a deal now appears to be doubtful, Yann M'Vila was more actively pursued.
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His critics perhaps overlook the fact that 'pure' defensive midfielders seem to be going out of fashion. Manchester City usually only use theirs, Nigel de Jong, as a substitute while United tend not to employ one at all. Real Madrid – and Germany – demand more than just solidity from Sami Khedira, while Sergio Busquets very much fits into the Barcelona blueprint. Less emphasis is being placed on defensive specialists and more on how the team unit defends all over the pitch.
Whatever happens, Wenger is, this time, in control. Song is under contract until 2015 and although the new season is drawing near, a loan move for Nuri Sahin to fill the gap looks workable. It would perhaps be a shame, though, to lose one of the Premier League's most unique players; Alex Song, the opinion-splitter.
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