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Why Arseblog and too many others are wrong about Song

If you follow Arsenal you would most certainly have heard the meme that has become settled this season that "Alex Song thinks he's Kaka, he keeps bombing forward, and leaving Arsenal exposed at the back". It is nonsense. 

There are three components to the meme. The first is that Alex Song thinks he is Kaka. I haven't interviewed Songinho so I can't speak to whether he thinks he's Kaka. However, on it's face this one is nonsense. It is possible that he has looked at his sublime finish against Bolton when the game was in the balance and concluded that he might have some skills. Alex's manager says;
“Song wants to get forward. Sometimes defensive midfielders just want to defend but it's not his only role and he does [attack] well in fairness.
Well, Alex Song has 3 goals in the league this season. All three goals were winners or goals that tipped the game's balance in Arsenal's favour. Only Craig Gardner and Scott Parker have scored more goals from a central midfield position this season. There is no doubt that Alex Song is effective in the opposition half.

Arseblog had such a doubt. He used a graphic showing that most of Alex Song's uncompleted passes were in the opposition half to claim that  Song "lacks the awareness and vision required to do what he’s been asked to do (create)". It was immediately clear to me what is wrong with this line of argument. I assume it's clear to you too but I'll point it out anyway. The problem with Arseblog's argument is threefold. One, the fact that Alex Song is a defensive midfielder does not mean he will never pass in the opposition half. Even if he wasn't 'bombing forward' he'd still have to find team mates in the opposition half. Thus his passing in the opposition half does not tell us anything in itself about whether he's more suited to a creative midfield role or not. Second, no statistic by itself means anything. It is true that 8 of Song's misplaced passes against Fulham were in the opposition half, but what if that was a smaller number than was misplaced by say, Samir Nasri?  by Guardian Chalkboards 

Does that mean Nasri is an ineffective creative player? No, most players' misplaced passes occur in the opposition half. Saying most of Song's misplaced passes occur in the opposition third means exactly nothing. The 3rd problem with Arseblog's argument is that he doesn't acknowledge that Alex Song has been allowed to go forward (with Wilshere, Denilson or Cesc holding when he does) not just so he can create but also for tactical reasons. Something else Arseblog might have missed is that Song is not always the main holding midfielder. In the games against West Ham, Manchester City and Spurs, Denilson was the deepest of Arsenal's two holding midfielders. 

Arsene Wenger offered these nuggets of insight;
“The teams close us down so much high up because they know we play through the middle,” said the manager. “I push my midfielders a bit up at the start to give us more room to build up the game.
Jack Wilshere;
"I’ve been playing alongside Alex Song a lot and we just talk to each other – if he goes I stay, and if I go then he remains. It’s good, we both have the ability to do each of these things and I think it’s gone well so far. "[As for my passing game], I think the boss has said it too - it’s sometimes better for me to come from deeper because I can see more of the game, see the passes from longer distance and things like that.
Renoog gave detailed tactical explanation of Arsenal's midfield three.

Even Zonal Marking has chimed in on how Arsenal's midfield three is set up this season. 

Song is allowed to go forward for different reasons. One of it is to allow Cesc to drop deep when he is being man-marked. Another is to allow Arsenal push up when we're being closed down high up the pitch. Yet another is to allow him press high up the field. It's not all about him creating, even though he's well capable of doing that as well. 

So much covered and we're still on the first point of the "Alex Song thinks he's Kaka, he keeps bombing forward, and leaving Arsenal exposed at the back" meme. 

On to the second, the notion that Song does nothing but bomb forward. 

On this blog I often do an analysis of Arsenal's true formation (aka the average touch positions). After every game in the last 2 years or so, I go over to ESPN Soccernet or Telegraph to take a look at the average touch positions of the Arsenal players. They tell us a lot. They tell us not just how the manager wanted the team to set up, but also how the players interpreted their instructions, how the opposition forced a team's tactics to change and also summarise a lot of touch data. It's not a perfect indicator, it doesn't show what the players do without the ball. How they run, what attitude they had, etc. All said, if we wanted to know if Song does nothing but 'bomb forward', it is very likely that his average touch positions for this season should be higher than for previous seasons. 

I don't have one single graphic to show it, I can only rely on a couple of examples, but Alex Song's average touch positions are not higher this season than in previous seasons. 

Let's take the Fulham game as a a case in point. Here's his average touch position for that game: 

  Alex song average touch position v fulham this season
last season; Alex song average touch position v fulham last season Alex Song average touch position vs Spurs this season Alex song average touch position v spurs this season  last season Alex song average touch position v spurs last season Alex Song average touch position vs City (A) this season Alex song average touch position v city (a) this season 
 last season Alex song average touch position v city (a) last season season 

The reader is encouraged to go to Soccernet to check for him/herself. Check Song's average touch positions last season, and compare with this season and you see there's no change. While Song goes forward sometimes, what matters is what he does most times. Most times he is in position, screening the defence. When he is not in position, Jack Wilshere, Diaby or Denilson cover. If they don't they should face criticism for this. Arsenal are playing with 2 holding midfielders. If one goes forward the other is required to hold. There is no contradiction either. Song is allowed to join the attack sometimes, but only sometimes. Arsene provides further insight;
"Song has improved his engine. Before he was less mobile. He has improved his mobility and he doesn't need a breather now when he goes [forward] and comes back. That has added something to his quality. “Before, he needed a breather when we won the ball, so when we went forward he was a bit too late [to join the attack]. Now, since he has more stamina capacity, when we win the ball he is on the move straight away and, when his timing is good, he arrives at the right moment in the box".
I don't know if Arsene is right that Alex Song covers more ground. If you look at his tackling, you would find that he tackles more this season, all over the pitch. It seems true that he covers more ground. It is possible that Song covers more ground but this is nevertheless leaving Arsenal open. 

This is the third part of the "Alex Song thinks he's Kaka, he keeps bombing forward, and leaving Arsenal exposed at the back" meme. I struggle to take this one seriously. 

The first point is that we're not open. What is remarkable about this season and the last one is that we concede a lot of goals despite conceding few chances. I am worried about the fact that we lose games we dominate. I am worried about the fact that most of our bad defensive record can be explained in 3 games; 3 conceded to West Brom, 3 conceded to Spurs and 2 conceded to Chelsea. That's half of our defensive record explained. Again and again, we see Arsenal conceding to the opponent's first shot on target. We saw against Fulham that Arsenal could concede to Mark Hughes' dumb strategy of trying to spring Arsenal's offside trap 15 times with the hope and prayer that they'd get away with it once. 

This trend however shows that Arsenal are not too open. We're not conceding an inordinate number of chances to the opposition. The problem is not mainly tactical, and there is no doubt there is a problem. 

If we're not conceding too many chances, I refuse the notion that it's all down to the holding midfielder being out of position. Against Fulham, Song was in position for the Fulham goal. He attempted a tackle on Dempsey who played Kamara through. For the Villa first goal, he wasn't upfield either. It was Jack Wilshere who was out of position and Tom Rosicky who failed to cover the gaping hole in front of the defence. For Spurs' first goal, Denilson who was the main holding midfielder was in position, but the goal was due to the forwards failing to close down Assou-Ekotto. On the other 2 goals he was in position. 

I can't count many goals Arsenal have conceded this season that was down to Song being out of position. This is why I think the hysteria about Song is just that- hysteria. It's another example of the Arsenal world fixing on a false consensus. 

There have been so many of those in the past it's not worth enumerating them. I will however point out that the conventional wisdom about Alex Song was that he's shit. One prominent blogger said he is not a Premier League player, but instead his true level is the Championship. This was the season when Song & Denilson got blamed for Wenger not fulfilling popular clamour for the signing of a new defensive midfielder. This in spite of the fact that Denilson was outstanding that season, and in spite of the fact that Wenger tried to sign Xabi Alonso and Inler.

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