One of Us Speaks: Bridging the Fàbre-chasm
The Magnificent Malochi is here for another ivory-tickling sermon
In December 2007 one of our plucky young Carling cup sides overcame Blackburn Rovers in the quarter final. It was a breathless scrap in the Lancashire mud on a bitter night against an experienced Mark Hughes team. You’ll probably remember it – Arsenal started well, then gave up their two-goal lead, but battled to 3-2 in extra time. No small achievement when you remember the trouble that lot used to give us…haha: “used to”.
Eduardo got the goals, but it was the performance of the centre half that night that I want to reminisce about. Just 20 at the time, this lad played like a narcoleptic Lothar Matthäus.
There were a few points in the match when he swung at air, mistimed his leaps and watched in wonder as the play passed him by.
But for long periods he defended with so much confidence and authority. And striding forward he was really something to behold – dispatching forensic through-passes, or picking out runners from afar, lofting 40-yard balls that barely called on their recipients to break stride. A few months earlier, out on loan at Charlton, he had produced one of the assists of the season – aiming an immaculate pass from deep that cleaved two banks of lunging Watford defenders for Luke Young to finish in one move.
Of course we’re talking about Alex Song. I went back to the yellowing ATVO library this week, and the Blackburn performance was as eventful as I remembered.
It’s an Alex Song we haven’t seen too much of since, despite his vast improvement in the intervening years. Up to now we’ve known him as a calm presence in front of the back four – blissed-out expression, fond of an attacking raid and prone to the occasional lapse in concentration or off day. Clean first touch, a good passing range, without catching the eye particularly.
I really don’t know if he’s about to undergo a transformation, and suddenly reemerge this season as a devastating creative force from deep midfield. But what we can be sure of is that he’s taking on more responsibility in the build up.
Against Blackburn a couple of weeks back he poked a lovely pass through for Gervinho’s opener. Last weekend he would have claimed another had Theo finished his one-on-one against the typically in-form-for-his-visit-to-Arsenal Jääskeläinen. And on Wednesday night he picked out Chamberlain from the halfway line in the build up to the first goal.
I think what we’re talking about here are matters of self-belief and pecking order. It was only natural that Alex Song should defer to Cesc Fàbregas, one of football’s most perceptive creators. Always one to tailor a system to his players rather than the other way round, I’d venture Wenger devised our formation and whole style of play to harness Cesc’s undeniable ability.
So as you’d expect, right now there’s still a big hole – some might call it a Fàbrechasm – in our midfield, but slowly the players added and those still here will find a way to bridge that gap. It won’t be one player that does it, rather a combination of players meeting in the middle, knitting together by using talents already at their disposal, or perhaps calling on skills that have lain dormant, suppressed during the Catalan’s reign as captain. As Wenger pointed out in 2007 and this year, when a side loses one of its stars other players might surprise you by what they can do.
It’s probably also worth pointing out that on that triumphant night at Ewood Park four years ago Song had Eduardo for guidance. He really helped his younger teammates through – gesticulating and pointing at the space ahead of him. And the Brazilian striker was one of the more astute off the ball runners around at the time. Certainly far better than Adebayor, who was our main centre forward during Song’s debut season with the first team.
So it helps that Walcott has started timing his runs more precisely over the past season. Now with Gervinho we’ve got the kind of twin-flanked pace and movement we were begging for at the back end of last season. It should make life easier for our new central midfield, and at this stage Alex Song has one fewer assist than last season after a sixth of the games. He’s at two in seven right now.
Meanwhile, without wanting to play down the talents of Rosicky, Benayoun or the emerging Frimpong and Coquelin, the other members of our first choice three-man midfield over the next few weeks will most likely be Ramsey and Arteta.
Ramsey probably wouldn’t have expected as many games as he’s had this season, and has started to find his range over the last few weeks, chalking up a handful of assists, linking up better with his teammates and in all ways looking more like the player who broke into the team in late 2009. He doesn’t appear to be a guy with endless reserves of confidence to draw on. And I’m sure that nothing harms a footballer’s self-belief like a shattered leg. So just as in those inconsistent 12 months after he joined the club, Aaron is having to find his feet. Thank Colin Lewin and Gary O’Driscoll that the right one is still attached to his lower leg.
And then there’s Arteta. Having watched him a few times now, I think it’s safe to say that he won’t offer Cesc’s attacking penetration. Rather he’s a diligent team player, finding space, bringing the ball under his spell and moving it on with little fuss. I like the idea that he’ll be able to conduct the course and tempo of play in the middle, kind of like a policeman directing traffic, only a little less static, hopefully. Chalkboards from the Bolton game last weekend show that both Ramsey and Song were more adventurous with their passing.
What’s intriguing right now is how the players we thought we knew are changing before our eyes. Who knows what will greet Messrs. Diaby and Wilshere when they finally respond to the distress call.