Tuesday, August 21, 2012

The well trodden path

Petit.  Overmars.  Gio Van Bronckhorst.  Sylvinho.  Henry.  Hleb (yes Hleb).  Cesc.  Now Alex Song.  The path from North London to Catalunya is a well trodden one.  The Wenger era at Arsenal has seen the club remolded from “Boring, boring Arsenal” to a side that plays and has sought to develop players in the style of Barcelona.  Open, free flowing, expansive, quick passing, emphasis on ball retention rather than launching it up to some big lump, pressing high up the pitch, changing from a 4-4-2 formation to a more fluid 4-3-3, Arsenal are a team very much in the image of the blaugrana.  It thus makes the Camp Nou an natural progression from the Emirates.  Barcelona sign Arsenal players because Arsenal play like Barcelona.  Of the above list Petit, who Barça didn’t want to begin with, and Hleb aside, every player who’s made the move has done so successfully.  Overmars may ultimately have succumbed to career ending injury and Titi took a whole season to get going (he also had the small matter of Ronaldinho in his way) but they delivered.

So what to expect from Alex Song?  Van Bronckhorst-like heights, developing into a far superior player than he was at Arsenal or Hleb-like hows, running down blind alleys, ending up being loaned out here, there and everywhere before leaving quietly via the back door.

First off he’s a replacement for Seydou Keita, who’s joined some Chinese team you’ve never heard of.  Keita is 32, turning 33 in January.  Song will be 25 in early September.  So he’s younger and coming into his prime rather than seeing it disappear off into the distance.  What else?  He’s played almost 150 games for Arsenal and has played a whole lot of Champions League football in the last 5 years.  He brings experience.  Though initially deployed as a defensive midfielder, at the base of three, he’s played a much more attacking role in the past two seasons, particularly last year with Cesc leaving.  He’s not just a shield for the back four but rather, Mascherano/ Busquets-like he can link the play, pass the ball.  His understanding with Robin Van Persie last year, his constant ability to find the Dutchman and power forward rather was very impressive, he’s really evolved as a player, into a more modern midfielder, less defined by the constraints of being a traditional defensive player, the Makelele role, that, once so dominant, now seems incredibly dated (look at John Obi Mikel at Chelsea, a player who promised so much but has completely stagnated at the Bridge).

That said he may not play in midfield at all, instead morphing like Mascherano into a centre-back (where he started his career at Arsenal), slotting in for the creaking Puyol who cannot be expected to play 50-something games per season with his knees.  Certainly that spot is a little less crowded than the centre of the pitch, where Barça are coming down with midfielders, albeit with only one who is over 6 feet tall (Sergio Busquets), which brings us back to Keita.  Song will, hopefully, provide some of Keita’s strength and muscle plus echoes of the brilliant Yaya Toure, bringing a bustle and edge that Thiago, Cesc, Xavi et al don’t have (I was going to say lack but to call any of the blaugrana midfielders ‘lacking’ seems ridiculous).

Overall I’m reasonably happy with Song’s arrival.  He’s not Javi Martinez but then again he didn’t cost €40 million, which Barcelona most certainly do not have.  He’s come in at a good price and has shown at Arsenal that he can develop as a player and that he’ll suit the Barça style.  How much of an opportunity he’ll get really depends on injuries and how much Tito Vilanova comes to trust him.  With everyone fit, he’s not first XI, not even close but then when is everyone fit?  Ideally he’ll be eased in, play maybe half of the games that Barça play this season.  He’ll also, in all likelihood, be off at the African Cup of Nations (what a minute, didn’t we just have one of those?) in mid-January to mid-February so that automatically rules him out of 5 La Liga games, plus maybe 2 Copa del Rey ties.

With regards what Song brings it’s worth reading this piece from David Pleat from the tail end of last season when Arsenal beat City.  He's a big loss to Arsenal (despite all the fairly pathetic "he was a disruptive influence" stuff that they're leaking) and fills a gap that needed to be plugged given there were no real options at Barça B (dos Santos, Bartra, Fontas and Muniesa are far from the finished article) and they've got him for less than €20 million.