Two days ago I sat down to write a scathing comment about the purchase of Song from Arsenal. The general premise was that a summer ago we bought Cesc Fabregas, Arsenal’s best midfielder. This was a player who was going to fit perfectly in our midfield right off the bat, a player who was grown in our system, a player with Blaugrana imprinted on his DNA. Yet, by his own admission, he struggled to adapt to our midfield. One description that was bandied about was that he was too “anarchic.” His positioning was often poor, he looked confused on the pitch, and he lacked tactical awareness.
A year later and we’ve stopped by our favorite shopping area in London to pick up the newest model of their best midfielder. A player who by all accounts is a physical marvel that could have been sculpted by Da Vinci himself. On the other hand Song has been described as tactically poor and prone to mental lapses on the pitch. If Fabregas, a player who was custom made for Barcelona’s midfield, struggled to adapt then how confident can we be about Song adapting?
However, I realized I was judging Song based on his ability to fit into Guardiola’s system. There have been hints and rumors throughout the summer and preseason that Vilanova was going to institute a more direct approach. It is often said that you can tell a lot about a new manager’s style and philosophy by looking at the characteristics of their first signings. In signing Jordi Alba it was obvious that Vilanova had identified the left side of the pitch as an area where we needed a stronger attacking threat. He also added pace and directness to the team (his directness was highlighted perfectly in the Euro Championship final) – something we were lacking at times last season.
The signing of Song is an even greater indication that Vilanova wants the team to be more direct. As my brother, a long time Arsenal supporter, described it – “Song loves to hit Hollywood passes.” His completed through ball and assist statistics from last season confirm this – they are some of the highest in Europe. After watching us attack at pace in Vilanova’s first official match we may come to love those “Hollywood passes” instead of dreading a loss of possession.
The signing of Alba and Song eerily mirrors Guardiola’s most successful first season signings – Alves and Keita. Keita became one of Guardiola’s favorite players because he fit Guardiola’s philosophy perfectly – he pressed strongly, retained possession well, and kept it simple. Alex Song is no Seydou Keita, but he may turn out to be Vilanova’s equivalent.