A simple January solution for Arsenal?

Former Arsenal midfielder Alex Song

It’s the year of the comebacks at the Emirates. Arsenal are finally back in the Premier League title race, Mathieu Flamini is back doing his running man act in central midfield and Nicklas Bendtner is back on Capital One Cup duty.

Flamini was a signing I snarled, laughed, bit my thumb and turned my nose up at after Arsene Wenger snapped him up on a bosman move from AC Milan in the summer. But I’m now eating my words. The same goes for Arsenal’s title ambitions this season.

So with it being already proving to be a season of glorious returns for the Gunners, should Arsene Wenger add to his list of comeback kings in January in the form of former Arsenal midfielder Alex Song? The Cameroonian could provide a simple, obvious and relatively cheap solution to the North Londoners’ physical imbalance in the middle of the park.

Things haven’t gone too well for Song since he left the Emirates for Barcelona in summer 2012. Playing for the most successful club side in the history of the beautiful game is the kind of heavenly calling a professional player at any club can’t ignore, but the 26 year-old’s La Liga tenure has become more of a hell – or rather a melancholy purgatory that the ex-Gunner is trying desperately to escape from.

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Since arriving at the Nou Camp, the Cameroon international has made just 41 appearances in all competitions, most of which have been from the bench and in Song’s less favoured centre-back berth. Cameo contributions to the Catalans’ title-winning triumphs last season means that Song’s Barca tenure can be hardly judged as a failure, on paper at least, but at a personal level, being a regular bench-warmer and part time defender is not what he’d signed up for.

He’s now considering a January departure just 18 months after he left North London for a £15million fee. At the same time, reports in the Spanish media have suggested the Barca management are now preparing to flog Song to the highest bidder in the January transfer window.

So availability is no issue for Arsenal, and neither is finance; Arsene Wenger still has plenty left in the transfer kitty from the summer, and with the Catalans now looking to get rid, they’ll undoubtedly let Song leave for less than the £15million they splashed out on him a season and a half ago.

But would the Gunners gaffer actually want the powerful Cameroonian back? Or rather, should he want him back?

As previously mentioned, everybody at the Emirates is over the moon with the hard-working efforts of Mathieu Flamini in the middle of the park. The Frenchman is aggressive and tenacious, tireless and committed, and he goes a long way to address the flair player bias in Arsenal’s midfield.

Consistent displays against the Premier League rank-and-file clubs are expected – that’s what he’s paid for – but performances against Serie A leaders Napoli in the Champions League, and a second-half showing during the Gunners’ 1-0 North London derby win have been particularly pleasing, to such an extent that some pundits are claiming the returning running man could prove to be a better summer signing than Arsenal’s new messiah Mesut Ozil.

In terms of quality, perhaps not, but pound for pound, you can’t argue that a player who was a 29 year-old free agent just a matter of months ago is already exceeding expectations.

That being said, the Frenchman has come off early in his last two Premier League appearances through injury, and was sorely missed during heavyweight clashes with Borussia Dortmund and Chelsea as a result. Baring that in mind, it’s unlikely a midfielder who has made just 24 appearances over the last two seasons in Italy will be able to make it through an entire Premier League campaign without regular bouts on the sidelines.

Gunners fans will be eager to point out Mikel Arteta has done a fine job in holding midfield over the past few seasons at the Emirates. But I’m of the opinion that Song could be doing much more for the Arsenal first team than the Frenchman or the Gunners vice-captain.

Arteta has transformed from a wide man at Rangers, to a central midfielder at Everton to a defensive midfielder for Arsenal throughout his career. And there’s certainly something to be said for his manner of anticipating loose balls and neatly distributing them from deep midfield.

But in the traditional, English, Premier League sense, a defensive midfielder he is not – he’s certainly more Andrea Pirlo than he is Claude Makelele. Tough tackles,  putting his body on the line and marking opponents out of the game are not integral parts of his footballing nature, and in my opinion at least, it’s an intrinsic flaw that will cost the Spaniard and  subsequently Arsenal on numerous occasions throughout the season.

Song can provide that natural defensive awareness that Arteta is lacking, and the physical prowess that both the Arsenal vice and Flamini can’t provide. Overall, none of the Gunners midfielders measure in at over 6 foot, or don any particular brute strength or power. Admittedly, since the days of Patrick Viera, that’s not been the North Londoners’ style.

But compare it to the powerhouse engine rooms at Chelsea and Manchester City – the likes of Yaya Toure, Javi Garcia, Fernandinho, Frank Lampard, Michael Essien, John Obi Mikel and Ramires – and it’s not hard to envisage Arsenal being outmuscled  and trumped for height against their title rivals. Last night’s Capital One Cup defeat to the Blues provides a classic example, although it should be mentioned that the Gunners were by no means at full strength.

Similarly, far from physicality taking away from Arsenal’s aesthetic and technical footballing ethos, which has often been the logic behind Arsene Wenger opting against signing conventional holding midfielders in the past, Song represents the perfect balance. The 26 year-old recorded 14 assists during his final season in North London, and his ability on the ball can only have further improved at Barcelona.

On the other hand, there are plenty of Arsenal fans who wouldn’t welcome the Cameroon international back with open arms, and their point of view is certainly understandable. There were countless occasions during his Emirates tenure where Song was found wanting when screening  his back four.

The 26 year-old’s positional sense is arguably his weakest attribute, often caught out too high up the pitch and exposing significant gaps behind him. At the same time, his tackling was hardly clinical. During his final campaign with the Gunners, the Barcelona midfielder picked up ten yellow cards, nearly double the amount Arteta gave away donning the same holding midfield role last season. Some would even argue, despite Song being often deployed at the heart of defence during his time with Barcelona, that the former Gunner shouldn’t even be referred to as a holding midfielder at all, with too much free-roaming and positivity on the ball to ever fulfil the services of an anchorman to their proper extent.

Furthermore,  Song was a part of an Arsenal side that contained Robin Van Persie, Samir Nasri and Cesc Fabregas, and despite the wealth of fantastic quality, the Gunners were still some distance behind their divisional rivals in the title race. And with Arsene Wenger currently spoilt for choice in the middle of the park, admittedly with several variations of the same type of creative player, there’s arguably no room for the want-away Catalan at the Emirates.

Even more so, although Arsene Wenger does have a significant sum in reserve for January expenditures, his transfer kitty is by no means endless. Seeing as the Gunners’ midfield is already packed with top talent, even if it’s lacking a player of the physical and powerful Song mould, the leading priority for the Gunners in the coming transfer window remains a striker who can compete with Olivier Giroud and is capable of sharing goal-scoring responsibilities adequately.

But the current campaign remains Arsenal’s greatest chance to break their silverware duck for some time, be it in the form of the Premier League title or one of the auxiliary tournaments. To do so however, to effectively fight on all fronts and keep their title bid intact for the duration of the season, you need an Alex Song ,a  physical and combative figure, in your squad. Perhaps not every game, but certainly for the heavyweight, season-defining affairs against quality opposition.

He addresses a number of the issues with Arsenal’s midfield, that has already been found wanting without enough athletic and aggressive presence on two occasions in the last week. Furthermore, with Barcelona ready to sell and Song already planning on leaving, Wenger could snap up the midfielder for significantly less than the £15million he left the Emirates for two years ago – yet another piece of astute business for the Frenchman to add to his wise dealings at the end of the summer.

They say you should never go back in football, but Arsene Wenger has broken that taboo twice already this season. Doing it again for a midfielder established at Premier League, Champions League and international level, that will also provide a positive equilibrium for Arsenal’s lack of physicality in the middle of the park, can hardly be considered an illogical move, although there are certainly more risks than first meet the eye.

Should Arsenal re-sign Song?

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