I have to admit that I naively raised an eyebrow yesterday when Roberto Mancini, chasing a much-needed win at Newcastle, took off attacking midfielder Samir Nasri for defensive midfielder Nigel De Jong. In the end, this turned out to be the masterstroke that won City the game, and possibly the league title.
Having been largely invisible for most of the game, suddenly Yaya Toure was playing off the striker, causing Newcastle’s defence no end of problems before scoring two brilliant match-winning goals.
Toure was used in this kind of attacking role more often last season, and returned 10 goals, more than he’d ever scored before in his career. He was often a bit-part player at Barcelona, used to fill in in defensive midfield or even centre-back – which he is more than capable of doing – but it has to go down as a bit of a waste of talent. He hasn’t scored as much this season (his two goals yesterday bring his tally up to 7) as he has been asked to play further back. When you see his match-winning qualities, displayed at St James’ yesterday and in big games last season, one can’t help but wonder why.
Football is not just about players, it’s about combinations of players, and how players are used. Yaya Toure became a different player when Nigel De Jong was on the pitch. Perhaps it is time to look at Alex Song’s situation at Arsenal and wonder if we could get more out of him without hindering the shape of the team.
Originally a defensive-midfielder, Song has shown this season and last that his strength lies further forward. He contributed 5 goals and 4 assists last term, and has taken on the creative burden left by Cesc Fabregas this season, with an incredible 14 assists, many of which have been sublimely executed long through-balls like the ones that set up Robin van Persie against Everton, Liverpool and Norwich on Saturday.
However, he divides opinion among Arsenal fans as he can be seen as lazy and positionally unaware. He certainly should have done better on all of Norwich’s goals, much as he was found strolling back to watch QPR’s Diakite get forward to score against us last month.
With Wilshere in the team last season, and Arteta this season, Song has had players track back for him when he’s moved forward, but with those two out now, Rosicky and Ramsey aren’t defensive-minded enough to fill in for Song, and this seems to be causing problems. Some say Song should cut out the Hollywood passes and control himself a bit more by sitting back and giving the ball to the creative players.
However, these so-called creative players have not come close to providing the number of assists Song has: Rosicky has 2; Ramsey has 6; even Arteta only has 3. It seems much more likely that Song is simply not being played to his strengths. Without the burden of tracking back, he could probably reach even higher numbers in both goals and assists.
A popular choice among Gooners for a transfer target this summer is Rennes’ Yann M’Vila. Most would see him as a replacement or an upgrade on Song, but the obvious choice seems to be to bring him in to do what De Jong did for Toure yesterday – to set Song free and unleash the obviously talented player that is in there somewhere. We lack a truly defensive-midfielder at the club and there’s no doubt that M’Vila fits that Makelele/Gilberto mould perfectly. He does not have high statistics in goals or assists, but boasts a high passing percentage, which suggests he plays the simple pass and lets his more attack-minded team-mates do the rest.
With Arteta recently turning 30, and Wilshere on what might be a long road to full recovery, we will surely need more options in midfield next season; bringing in M’Vila or someone similar and freeing up Song might be the perfect solution. We certainly don’t want to over-rely on Rosicky and Ramsey as often as we have this season.
Either way, to solely lay blame on Song seems a bit ridiculous. With such an impressive assist count it makes no sense to say he should simply be got rid of. Once again, the responsibility lies with the manager to use the players properly. You wouldn’t see David Silva or Cesc Fabregas playing in defence would you?