Wednesday, 14 September 2011

The reasons behind Alex Song's man of the match performance in Germany

Inside The Formation is a new feature on for the 2011/12 season. We'll be asking a writer to look at an individual player's performance and analyse their input into the game. Joss Bennett looks at Alex Song's role against Borussia Dortmund.

Ahead of what was always going to be a tricky tie away to the German champions, Arsenal were able to welcome back two players who had missed the last three Premier League games with suspensions - Alex Song and Gervinho. But it was the former who made the best impression in difficult circumstances.

The Cameroonian faced heavy criticism last season - with many hoping Wenger would look to sign one of a number of desirable defensive midfielders across Europe, including Rennes' Yann M'Vila and Athletic Bilbao's Javi Martinez.

But up against tricky players in Mario Gotze and Shinji Kagawa, who both frequently looked to occupy the space behind the main striker, Song coped remarkably well and was arguably a key factor throughout the game in ensuring Dortmund didn't make their 57% possession and relative dominance count for more than a point, picking up WhoScored's Man of the Match award with an impressive 8.0 rating.

One of the best aspects of Song's game against Dortmund was his ever-presence in the tackle - helping to break up opposition counter-attacks (particularly in the first half when Arsenal were particularly susceptible to conceding chances from quick breaks) with 12 tackles, the most any Arsenal player has managed in one Champions League game since the 2006/07 season.

Song also played a huge part in limiting the effectiveness of danger-man Shinji Kagawa; the Japanese midfielder was highlighted before the game as one to watch out for, having averaged 1.4 key passes per game, and 3.6 dribbles per game so far in the Bundesliga as well as drawing almost 2 fouls per game. Against Arsenal, however, Song's general power and strength in the tackle led to the 5' 7" playmaker being dispossessed twice and averaging a measly 5.8 rating overall, while Song committed just 1 foul.

Another important part of Song's game last night was his interceptions off the ball - although he didn't make as many as Laurent Koscielny (5), or even Yossi Benayoun (4), he did make 2 interceptions as well as one clearance, one last-man tackle and one block from a shot*.

With Dortmund focusing the majority of their play through the middle, it was vital that Song stopped the dangerous Mario Gotze (who again, only managed a fairly low rating - 6.9 - although he did manage to connect with 4 through-balls) from creating too many chances in and around the box.

But Song's performance wasn't all positive, and once again showed me why Arsenal must switch back to last season's 4-2-3-1 formation that saw us beat Chelsea, Barcelona and Manchester United at home (surprisingly enough, with Alex Song shining in all three of these games, even getting a goal in the former).

Despite being naturally a holding midfielder, or centre-back from his early days at Arsenal and loan spell at Charlton Athletic, Song has clearly become accustomed to having another holding player alongside him recently, although Jack Wilshere was admittedly far from a pure holding midfielder. 12 tackles in one game is mightily impressive for any player, but it must be pointed out that if two players were able to make 12 tackles between them in central midfield, it would surely be a better option than putting all the pressure on one man to deliver and break up play.

There were several worrying moments, particularly in the second half when Song naturally tired having not really played regular competitive football since his stamp on wind-up merchant Joey Barton, and Dortmund upped their frantic pressing game, when the Arsenal man looked lost and helpless. Several times Song was forced to play his defenders into tricky situations with over, or under-hit passes in the defensive third when under intense pressure and he himself was dispossessed on four occasions.

But equally we can look to Song's offensive statistics to show how, despite the pressure from Dortmund's players, he was still able to contribute to Arsenal's attacks - however few and far between they were. Song linked defence to attack with one key pass (i.e. he created one shooting opportunity for a team-mate) and was successful with one dribble attempt, as well as drawing one foul himself and connecting with two (of three  attempted) long-passes.

Perhaps the presence of youngster and dressing-room joker Emmanuel Frimpong has had a positive impact on Song, and forced him to really put in a shift to ensure he keeps his starting spot ahead of the Ghanian prospect, as many people have suggested, but that to me is a harsh view on a player who has constantly impressed in different formations, with different players after a difficult start to life at Arsenal.

For me, Alex Song has simply gone out and proved the critics wrong once again - it wasn't a perfect performance, or result - but both the point and man of the match award were hard-earned and we should take nothing away from either Arsenal or Song.

  • All statistics are from OPTA, via the excellent website.

Joss Bennett is co-editor and head writer of Arsenal blog Arsenal Report - a site for all Gooners interested in tactics, stats and the inner workings of the club. You can follow him on twitter and his read is work at Arsenal Report.

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