Alex Song, a typical Arsene Wenger buy, did just enough to impress the Arsenal manager after a season-long loan from SC Bastia, and was purchased for a mere £1 million in the summer of 2006. He had been followed closely by Wenger since he was a 17 year old, with the Frenchman having high hopes that the Cameroonian would be a star in the future.
But it’s easy to forget that Song, now 24 years old, didn’t exactly have an easy ride in North London. November 2006: the Cameroonian was given a rare start at Craven Cottage against Fulham, a chance to show what he was capable of and why Wenger was right to have faith in him; it turned out to be a horrible audition.
Song had a dreadful performance in that game, resulting in his substitution at half time, and he even suffered from a reported hairdryer treatment from then captain, Thierry Henry as the youngster slowly headed into obscurity as a fringe player.
A loan move to Charlton and a breakthrough season later for Arsenal in 2008/2009, and Song soon became a key member of the Arsenal first eleven, becoming a key cog in the midfield machine as a no-nonsense, influential, defensive midfielder. Growing as each season went by, Song has established himself as not only a regular Cameroon international and vital part of Arsenal’s team but also as one of the best midfield enforcers in the world today.
However, this season Song has grown even more as a player: with the departure of former captain and playmaker Cesc Fabregas, Song has taken part of his duty and added it to his own game while retaining his defensive duty as a hardman in midfield, as what I like to call a deep lying defensive playmaker.
Song is well known for his ability to break up play and drift from deep positions, starting counter attacks with tireless runs and protect his defense, but this season, he’s added a whole new playmaking dimension to his game. It’s fair to say he’s taken the mantle from Cesc Fabregas as at the time of writing, the Cameroonian currently boasts 15 assists this season – a pretty amazing amount for a defensive midfielder. Not to mention, Song averages 1.3 key passes per game as well as the highest number of average accurate through balls in the Premier League with 0.7 per game, higher than the likes of natural playmakers in David Silva and Luka Modric and ironically the same amount as Fabregas for Barcelona in La Liga.
The above is a heat map which shows Alex Song’s movements/frequent touches in the game against Fulham at the Emirates Stadium in the 2010/2011 season – you’ll notice that his movements are very narrow and that for the majority of the game, he was deployed in the center of midfield. Now let’s take a look below.
This heat map refers to the game against Borussia Dortmund at the Emirates Stadium earlier this season which portrays Alex Song’s movements/frequent touches – you’ll see that compared to the game with Fulham last season, he is in a more advanced role and covers more space around the pitch despite still playing as a defensive midfielder. Quite a difference.
You may wonder, if Song is a defensive midfielder, how is he able to roam forward so much this season and be more influential? Well, a certain Spaniard in Mikel Arteta has played a key role in that regard, playing side by side with the Cameroonian – Arteta’s presence has allowed Song to venture forward more while the Spaniard stays back and as the game goes on, the roles are interchanged between the two, however with Song staying forward majority of the time while Arteta plays mainly as a link man. Contrary to popular belief however, Song still maintains his defensive duties – averaging 2.9 tackles per game, 1.2 clearances per game as well as 2.0 interceptions per game this season.
As one can see, Song’s passing in this game was quite average to say the least, especially for a player who plays for such a free flowing football team like Arsenal, completing only 74% of his passes. Now let’s compare Song’s passing with a league game from this season against Aston Villa at the Emirates Stadium.
As we can see, compared to the Fulham game from last season, Song made 70 passes in this game as opposed to 46, completing 63 passes successfully to have a pass success percentage of 90%. A huge improvement and what’s even more telling is the amount of successful long balls. Since Song has drifted forward more this season, let’s now look at his passes in the attacking third:
For a defensive midfielder to successfully complete 18 out of an attempted 22 passes (and not only short passes) in the attacking third, including an assist in a fast paced league such as the Premier League is quite impressive – Song has improved his passing ability immensely from last season.
As football writer Jamie Sanderson puts it, Song is leading the way for a new type of modern holding player, combining defense and attack to maximum effect like no other player in the world. The Cameroonian has virtually created his own position which, as mentioned before, resembles that of a deep lying defensive playmaker. With his improved passing, newfound ability to dictate games and his playmaking attributes, the summer sale of Cesc Fabregas has really brought out the best in Song and transformed him. His range of skills and abilities certainly rank him as one of the finest and most complete midfielders in the world, and notably, he hasn’t even hit his prime.
Stats courtesy: WhoScored