“He is Arsenal’s only defensive midfielder.”
“Song is not a DM.”
“Wenger should sign M’Vila so Song can play further forward.”
“Now that we signed Cazorla Song can focus on sitting back.”
I’ve read so many conflicting opinions on Alex Song. It is a bit surprising how much he divides opinion. The controversy isn’t really about whether Song is a good player or not. The general consensus seems to be that he is not the greatest player but still an important one. The argument mainly surrounds his true role in the Arsenal midfield, the cause for which is simply that Song is a capable, versatile player, who is comfortable in different roles (like most of our midfielders).
But where should he play? How does he fit into Arsenal’s tactics? I think he is, despite his creativity, a holding midfielder, not a playmaker. He is a very good midfielder too, but needs to improve in some key areas before he can be considered world class.
Let’s look at what kind of player Alex Song is. Whoscored.com’s profile offers us a good summary of his skills and style. According to the profile, Song has no weaknesses (that might be a bit optimistic). His strengths are passing, dribbling, and aerial duels. He likes to play short passes (obvious), likes to tackle, but also commits fouls often. His overall rating is a 7.07, playing mostly in a DM role. He is versatile, too, comfortable playing at center half as well as midfield (if he does ever move to Barcelona, I expect they will play him in the back line).
The overall rating is interesting because he is far behind his midfield partner for the 11/12 season, Mikel Arteta, who is rated at 7.5. It is important to mention Arteta because he greatly influenced Alex Song’s role in the team last season. Wenger likes to play Song as the deepest midfielder. In fact, at the end of the 10/11 season, and most of the pre-season that followed, Arsenal played a 1-2 shape in midfield, with Song sitting behind Ramsey and Wilshere (later Rosicky). When we signed Arteta, he turned out to be very good at winning the ball, holding on to it and distributing it accurately. Song was more comfortable finding RvP and Walcott’s runs and providing them with through balls. So Wenger adapted by shifting the midfield to a 2-1 shape. Arteta and Song shared the holding midfield roles, rotating offensive and defensive duties.
So tactically, Song was a DM, but allowed to push up when needed. Arteta doing a good job of covering for him when he did. But even without Arteta, Wenger likes his midfield to rotate, for the deepest midfielder to push forward. It is a good way to catch the defence out as the deepest midfielder is often unmarked. When enquired about Alex Song’s more attacking role in the 10/11 season, Wenger remarked that he “wanted to fool the opposition into trouble.”
It is a good defensive strategy, too. When United visited the Emirates in May 2011, Song played behind Ramsey and Wilshere, but constantly pushed up to end up at the tip of the triangle. Rooney was clearly instructed to man-mark Song, and he would follow Song on his forays forward, deep into his own half. Yes, our defensive midfielder spent most of the time in the final third, but United’s goalscorer and playmaker also spent a lot of time at the edge of his own box.
In our midfield, the holding midfielder isn’t just allowed to push forward, he is required to. Midfield rotation is a good way to make it harder for the opposition to deal with us. It infuriates fans to see Song caught too high up the pitch as we fall victim to another counter attacking goal, but that is part of the role Song performs. And last season more than ever, in the absence of a true playmaker, he was required to contribute in the final third. What perhaps needs work is our midfield cohesion, chemistry, and communication. When one goes forward, another needs to be aware and drop back. Decision making is perhaps also an issue. But what it comes down to is not necessarily individual indiscipline, but rather lack of teamwork and tactical cohesion.
While he is certainly capable of pushing forward from deep, I wouldn’t be inclined to start him in an advanced position. Song is a good passer, good dribbler, but not good enough to play high up in midfield where there is less space and time. The deeper position suits him from an attacking point of view. He has more time, he isn’t too tightly marked, and can see the whole field ahead of him. He doesn’t have the technique to play as a no.8 or a no.10.
And that lack of technique works against him in the holding midfield role too. His passing percentage was just under 84% for last season, a far cry from the 90+% Mikel Arteta put up every week. You might say that’s because Song was more creative, playing more passes forward. But Arteta had more key passes per game, too (1.4 per game to Song’s 0.9). The fact is, Song can play some nice silky passes, but unfortunately his passing is too inconsistent. He often plays the wrong pass or just simply gives it away.
And this is where his weaknesses as a defensive midfielder become apparent. A no.6, a DM, is supposed to be a reliable distributor of the ball. This is important in defensive and attacking terms. Get the ball safely up the pitch, away from danger, and in the process build up attacking moves. Arteta does this really, really well. Hence why he often was our deepest midfielder. To really be a world class DM, Song needs to seriously improve in this aspect of his game. It is telling that without Arteta last season, Song struggled to control the midfield and we were outpassed and outplayed in the center of the pitch. Song is a good passer, but for Arsenal’s high standards, he falls short of being good enough.
Without the ball, Song is a strong tackler, but doesn’t seem to be the most reliable ball winner. Sometimes he seems to position himself poorly, but how much of that is down to him individually is debatable. What is his weakness individually is that he seems to be a little too willing to foul players. Taking a yellow card for the team is admirable, but too many and it becomes a problem. Song gets too many. Another area where he needs to improve.
Song is a good player, but not an automatic pick in the first team anymore. Arteta’s experience and discipline was key last season. Diaby can provide the strength for the physical battles. Wilshere is a more dynamic, creative option. All of them are better technical players too. But Song has improved so much since the time he joined, and continues to add extra dimensions to his game every season. He is only 24, and if he can continue to improve he could definitely make the step up to being world class.
At the moment he fits well into Arsenal’s midfield as a holding midfielder. That is his best position. But he needs a partner who can lead him and help cover for his weaknesses. I expect him to continue to be a regular presence next season but it remains to be seen if he can make the step up and become a truly dominant force in Arsenal’s midfield.