By 2000, Patrick Vieira had been Arsenal's defensive midfielder for 4 years and was the best in the premiership. He had been playing behind Emmanuel Petit who was Arsenal's offensive midfielder and part playmaker with Dennis Bergkamp. Arsenal sold Petit to Barcelona before the start of the 00/01 and so Vieira endured traumatic season.
Without his midfield partner Vieira had tough season. The control he was used to having was gone. In addition, all the midfielders around the country who had been overrun by Vieira and Petit for 4 years smelled blood and took their chance at having a go at Vieira. He got more than a few bookings that season from frustration and being over-exposed.
Vieira's most difficult problem was how to get to influence the team from where he was. He was trying to do his regular defensive duties but being the leader, he tried to fill Petit's shoes by driving the team forward. He became stretched and the season closed with Arsenal losing the Championship.
Leading to the 01/02, everyone was calling for a replacement to Emmanuel Petit – an attacking midfield playmaker. Instead Wenger bought a little known Brazilian defensive midfielder, Gilberto Silva instead of an attacking midfielder. In that season, Arsenal went unbeaten and it became clear that Vieira's worst year on the pitch (00/01 without Petit) was also one of the most significant in his career. In that year while Vieira had to drive the team forward by doing both his job and Petit's vacant job, he had learned and became a tackling offensive midfielder without anyone noticing. Only when Gilberto arrived did it become clear that Vieira had transformed into playmaker rather than a defensive midfielder.
Last season, just about every game that Fabregas missed resulted in Arsenal dropping points. Cesc had a knee injury and was out for months. During that time Alex Song said he wanted to rise to fill the gap. Song felt last season that he had begun to master his position and looking back at a lot of his interviews last season, the theme of trying to do more for the team is quite clear. What we are seeing of Alex Song now is what Alex Song learned last season when Arsenal we struggling with injuries to offensive players like Fabregas, van Persie, Nasri, Rosicky and even Bendtner at various times last season.
Forget the goals Alex Song has scored, and focus on two moments this season that shows how Song is different. Against Wolves, Rosciky had come in central to pick up the ball from defence. Alex immediately moved out to the right into Rosicky's position. That is a big change – Song is a lot more dynamic and smart enough now to do that. Rosicky then turned two Wolves players and started a run. Immediately, Song responded by making a corresponding run on the wing that kept two Wolves defenders focused on him. He got the ball from Rosicky and had the presence of mind to look round him. He noticed Sagna making a run beside him but notice Chamakh was only marked by two defenders in the middle with space in-between them. He executed a perfect cross and Chamakh scored 37 seconds into the game. Alex Song did this in the position of a winger.
Against Man City, when a Fabregas pass to Chamakh was blocked, Alex Song was in the box, responded quickly and jabbed an important goal. That is how much Song has changed – his dynamism and collaboration with the team everywhere on the pitch – in the wings, in midfield, in the box and in defence.
The big difference between Vieira's change and Song's change is that when Vieira moved forward, Gilberto had been installed to take his place. Song's move forward does not seem to have been well planned or controlled. There is nobody taking his position unless when Denilson is there. So while Song's transformation is fantastic, it poses a challenge for Arsenal. Arsenal cannot continue to play with a defensive midfielder who is not static – especially given they are playing 4-3-3. A defensive midfielder needs to be rather stable and static.
Against Newcastle, I noticed that by 70mins, Arsenal midfield trio of Fabregas, Wilshere and Song were tired. Without really fixed roles, all three ran a lot more miles and worked a lot harder than they should have if one of them just stayed in a defensive position. But at the same time, I think Song's passing, strength and confidence says to me that we should not automatically expect that the best use of him must be in the static defensive midfield position especially if we have options.
Something needs to be done. Arsenal's midfield gets overworked, overrun and over-booked(with yellow cards) when the holding midfielder is roaming so much. I think Wenger has two options with Song and they all depend on whether Denilson is on the pitch or not.
If Denilson is on the pitch, Alex Song can continue to roam and try to influence the attacking game. I think we should always use this option away from home. I almost prefer him to Diaby alongside Fabregas if we have defensive holding player in place. It allows Cesc to work less and to operate as a half striker which is sometimes needed with a long striker.
If Denilson is not on the pitch, Alex Song should be asked to stay in a static defensive midfield position. That simple. Wenger realised that against Everton and substituted Wilshere which allowed Arsenal more structure in midfield. Denilson is also much wiser than Wilshere away from home.
Only Denilson can do an acceptable holding role. As we have seen, Diaby is not aware enough to play there and Eastmond is too young. In addition, I think Jack Wilshere and Cesc is a bit of a lightweight combination, especially away from home in the premiership. That was a problem that needed solving in Newcastle game. In Europe or at home with more attacking teams, it can work.
I am a big fan of Alex Song. For some people, he can't do anything right but for me, his growth is both interesting and fantastic for Arsenal. I don't think it is a foregone conclusion that Song is a defensive midfielder. He is only 23 and is going through a big growth spurt so there may still be surprises about what he turns out to be. I think he is a central midfielder rather than a defender but this season, he has revealed that his vision and timing are quite impressive. His passing is improving and if it keeps doing so at the current rate, he might just turn out to be quite a different player to the one we expected. I am currently keeping an open and very interesting mind on what I am seeing of the Demolition Man.
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