How Song became one of the world’s finest midfield enforcers
Alex Song has never really done convention. Born into a family with 17 sisters and 10 brothers, he looked like being a thing of rarity for Arsène Wenger in 2006 – a duff buy from France. But in a new self-styled defensive midfield role, the effervescent Cameroonian has become one of the finest enforcers in the world.
Plucked from French minnows Bastia in 2005, Song may well have seemed like a classic Arsenal find, but few players have faced such a battle to make a career in north London, and tested Wenger’s faith in young talent quite so stringently.
Song intrigued Wenger as an athletic, versatile and notably mature defender at Bastia, but club scouts were unconvinced, uncertain that the cousin of legendary centre back Rigobert Song had the concentration to match the undeniable application and reach the top. Wenger was left to decide, and took a closer look during a trial in Austria, now almost seven years ago.
He would do enough, just. A season-long loan deal – something Arsenal hardly ever do – was agreed, and Song had his first big break. A number of reserve run outs and cameo first-team appearances later, and the Gunners paid £1million for his services on a permanent basis. Song had a long way to go, but his progress was duly rewarded.
Then, in November 2006, he had his chance. A rare start, away to Fulham, in the Premier League. It was an opportunity few ever get at Arsenal, a chance to show what they can do from the off, but in a nervous at best, petrified at worst, 45 minutes, Song hardly completed a pass, and was hauled off at half time. It was the type of failed audition few ever get the chance to repeat.
Arsenal went on to lose 2-1, and Song played only once more in the next two months, having lost Wenger’s faith. He needed to dig in, and after getting married to childhood sweetheart Olivia and having son Nolan, the then 18-year-old Song showed gritty steel on loan at Charlton, before returning to the Emirates and relaunching himself.
Far from being a fringe utility player, Song worked hard on the training field, listened more, and then reaped the rewards. His influence on the Arsenal team has grown year-on-year since, silencing the boo boys with a bullish, simple, no-nonsense approach to midfield skirmishes, showing signs of a blossoming potential.
Yet it was the summer sale of foil and chief creator Cesc Fàbregas that has really brought out the best Song, with a partnership alongside the controlled and experienced Mikel Arteta, proving that two heads are better than one, and firing Arsenal from 17th to third in the table, with seven straight wins.
Song has continued his tough tackling, aggressive and defensive midfield work, contrary to popular belief still averaging around three key tackles and 2.5 interceptions per game as he has for the last three seasons. But rotating with Arteta, he has developed an unexpected but valuable new creative side, putting him in league with most dangerous players in Europe.
This season, Song has already racked up a whopping 13 assists, and averages the highest number of accurate through passes in the Premier League, with 0.7 per game – ironically the same as former team-mate Fàbregas at Barcelona. His ability to drift from deep positions and find killer passes has given Arsenal a new cutting edge.
All in all, Song is far from the finished product. He must improve his disciplinary record, and occasionally he over complicates things, but in an age where more and more is expected of the central midfielder, the 24-year-old is leading the way for a new type of modern holding player, combing defence and attack to maximum effect.
There will always be those who still remain cynical of his casual style and ever-changing hair, but having battled back from fringe centre back to defensive and creative midfield extraordinaire, few can argue that Alex Song’s range of abilities and contribution make him anything but one of the best in the world at his job.
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