Song Exit: Short-Term Side Effects Likely
Arsenal’s slow start against Sunderland was quickly followed by the news of Alex Song’s transfer to Barcelona, another key member of last season’s squad moved on by the club. With Bendtner, Arshavin, Park, Chamakh and Squillaci likely to follow as well and Cazorla, Podolski and Giroud on board, it’s clear Arsene Wenger is in the midst of a major restructuring of the playing squad.
While every team needs freshening up, history proves that settled sides have the best chance of success. In that respect, we should acknowledge that losing last season’s top scorer and top assist maker will certainly have a negative short-term impact. Regardless of the quality of new signings, it’ll take time for them to develop an understanding with each other. In the meantime, a lack of cohesion could adversely affect our performances.
Arsene Wenger would have preferred to sell Robin van Persie to a club other than Manchester United but irrespective of who the buyer was, the circumstances surrounding the Dutchman’s contract were such that it made sense for Arsenal to cash in on the player this summer. In Song’s case, he was tied to the club for another three years so there were no mitigating reasons for the club to sell him, irrespective of what the player wanted.
Reports suggest the Cameroonian’s attitude had deteriorated considerably over the past week and perhaps that was the reason for Arsene Wenger to act swiftly and decisively. Although I firmly endorse action against contract rebels, it’s not as if Le Boss is incapable of managing trouble makers. If he’d so wanted, I am certain the manager would have made Alex Song honour his contract and still played him without any problems.
Worsening attitude could have been the last straw but I suspect Wenger always meant to sell the 24-year old. Perhaps it’s a display of ruthlessness, perhaps an intentional attempt to complete the break-up of a group of players who had under-achieved at Arsenal. Alex Song is among the last members of a bunch of youngsters Arsene had personally groomed and primed for success – Theo Walcott and Abou Diaby among others still at Arsenal. It’s possible Arsene wished to offload players carrying the baggage of failure.
Irrespective of the reasons behind Song’s exit, Arsenal need to urgently plug the gaping hole left by one of last season’s star performers. The Cameroonian divides opinion among fans, some feel he’s a defensive midfielder gone rogue while others view him as a technically gifted player with potential to evolve into a more complete player. Regardless of how you feel about him, it’s difficult to deny that Song’s attacking contribution had a big impact on our 2011-12 season. The 24-year old played his part defensively too, boasting the best defensive stats of all our midfielders.
So how do we replace the assists and defensive work of Alex Song? Both Yann M’Vila and Nuri Sahin are being linked with moves and while reinforcements are definitely required, the most obvious issue here is that Arsene would have to play two players for the job previously done by one. M’Vila is a more disciplined holding midfielder so if he’s played in Song’s role, then the other two midfielders will need to share the creative burden left behind by the Cameroonian’s departure.
From that perspective, the manager’s reasoning is understandable. Unlike last season, we have more creative options in midfield. Cazorla has joined, Diaby’s returned from injury and Wilshere is due later in the year. In addition, Mikel Arteta can also play in the pivot role as he’s done with Everton over the years. If Nuri Sahin were to come on loan, he would provide further depth to the squad and cover for injuries. And that’s not taking Rosicky and Ramsey into account.
It all sounds pretty good in theory. In reality, so many new players in the team not only means they need time to settle down but also poses a problem for the manager in finding the right balance. After the Sunderland game, Arsene Wenger admitted that starting three strikers in Podolski, Gervinho and Walcott was perhaps a mistake as their directness came at the expense of creativity and technical ability in midfield. There is every likelihood that in the next game against Stoke, Wenger could move Podolski wide or introduce Ramsey at the expense of one of Gervinho or Walcott.
The manager is confident the players can gel together quickly but realistically speaking, it’s a tough ask in the short-term. Unfortunately, we have an extremely testing fixture list with Liverpool, Manchester City and Chelsea staring us firmly in the face after Stoke – not to mention an impressive looking Southampton. There is a real danger that at the end of September and despite moving early in the transfer market this year, Arsenal could yet find themselves in the lower reaches of the league table – in an eerily similar position to the one we found ourselves in last season.
With that possibility looming, a more pragmatic approach might serve us well in the short-term. A ‘we-may-not-win-but-let’s-not-get-beat’ approach. I am not holding my breath though. Arsene Wenger rarely wavers from his all-out attacking football philosophy even at the worst of times.
And to be perfectly honest, I wouldn’t have it another way. After all, isn’t part of our love for Arsenal due to this relentless pursuit of victory despite the odds?