Alex Song’s move to Barcelona as Seydou Keita’s replacement has far greater ramifications than initially meets the eye. To look at this in the overall context, one has to first highlight the earlier bit of business the Spanish side completed this summer.
Jordi Alba’s move to Barcelona as Eric Abidal’s replacement has greater meaning beyond the fact that Barcelona have purchased a pretty nifty player for a very discounted price. Alba is, firstly, a Catalan (being released by FCB early on in his career), is only 23, has the ability to fit into Barcelona’s tiki-taka and has the energy and pace for their pressing system. Alba’s offensive nature is a direct result of his original midfield position at the start of his career. He also has the mentality and confidence that suits Barcelona’s build up style.
The implications of this transfer are huge – Barcelona are now effectively able to play with 2 superb wingbacks on either side, providing them with a lot more natural width (essential for a team that’s job is to break down a stubborn defence almost week in week out). Additionally, Alba will rekindle his excellent partnership with Andres Iniesta down the left that is so effective for the Spanish national side.
Few teams are brave enough to attack with both fullbacks simultaneously, regardless of cover from central, midfield areas. The problem arises when quick counter attacks into the space behind the fullback will draw the central defenders/midfielders into uncomfortable wide positions. At Barcelona, the midfielders and attackers are given the responsibility of being the major ball winners, not the defenders. Regardless, a defence should always maintain an extra man when matched with an opposition’s forward line. The standard method would dictate if the left back pushes on, the right back tucks in, and vica-versa. Of course, Barcelona are hardly an ordinary side, set up in a manner to maximise efficiency with the ball, not without it. The width Dani Alves provides is key against teams that tuck in against Barcelona’s narrow attack (as will be the same on the opposite wing with Alba) and both Alves and Alba usually have the speed to recover if out of position.
Abidal played the majority of the 1st half of last season at left back, however obviously he is a much less offensive fullback than Alves (having played a significant part of his career at centre back), and normally tends to attack more conservatively. Hence, Barcelona normally have enough cover to accept the risk and allow Alves to bomb forward. With the offensive Alba in the side, Barcelona have the same situation on the left flank, and will rely heavily on the players covering the space behind both fullbacks, a fact opposite sides may identify as the key weakness.
Michael Laudrup summarises: “I’ve played against them, I even beat them with Getafe and I had a draw with them twice with Mallorca. But we didn’t have the ball. But every manager playing against Barcelona knows what they have to do: very compact, no space in between the lines, when you get the ball you need to keep it for three or four passes and somebody has to make a run. And on the left, when [Dani] Alves is away, you can go behind [Gerard] Piqué, who is not so fast.”
“Everybody knows that but no one succeeds with it. How come? Because you never reach the third or fourth pass before a [Barcelona] player is coming. And then they already have the ball again. What does that mean? It means you have to work a lot without the ball.”
The importance of Busquets
The key to Barcelona’s system is to have a holding/defensive midfielder dropping backwards into the defensive line, effectively becoming a third centre back, allowing both fullbacks to push on simultaneously (assuming FCB start with 2 CBs). Sergio Busquets has perfected this ability (under Pep Guardiola’s guidance) to the extent that the position has been nicknamed ‘the Busquets role’. It has been imitated at other sides in Europe too, for example Daniele De Rossi at Roma and Javi Martinez at Athletic Bibao. This past season has even seen Busquets start at centre back on a number of occasions. It could be argued that Busquets is Barcelona’s most important player, due to his role of initiating the attacks in build up and covering for the width provided by the attacking fullbacks. The key is to retaining a man extra against the opposition’s attack.
With Seydou Keita leaving this summer for China, Barcelona needed to bring in an extra man in this important defensive midfield role, to effectively provide cover for Busquets. Alex Song has been seen as the answer and the release clause of €80 million in his new contract indicates the perceived importance of his role by those at Barcelona. Song started his career at centre back and due to the similar style of football Arsenal play, Song is a sensible Barcelona signing for this cover. He also is a comparatively cheap option as opposed to the alternative solution of Javi Martinez or Thiago Silva.
Song achieved the most assists at Arsenal (14 in all competitions) last season and is a lot less of a ‘defensive’ midfielder than most think. From his deep position at Arsenal, a lot of his assists were diagonal balls over the defence to Robin Van Persie. The exact same type of balls that Barcelona use to play in Alves (or now possibly Alba?). He is also quicker than Busquets and a very physical player, which is often a key factor in the Clasico. His extra height will help in set plays against Champions League opponents looking to exploit this.
Vilanova on Song: “He will bring us height. He will surprise as he is a very good player. Busquets cannot play every game.”
Quotes today from the Barcelona medical staff regarding Song’s physicality:
Dr. Ricardo Pruna (FCB medical staff): “Song has a privileged muscular qualities. He has not suffered a muscle injury in eight years. He has a very low body fat percentage and very good muscle quality. All the tests have come out satisfactorily and he is available to the coach”.
If Barcelona continue to experiment with the 3-4-3 formation this season (as Tito Vilanova has alluded to recently) we may see Song also tested at centre back (especially with the fitness/injury concerns of Pique & Puyol), a position his versatility allows him to play in. Although Barcelona used 4 at the back throughout pre-season and in last night’s opening game of the season, it is an option that will be interesting to keep an eye on.
Transfer chain reaction
An interesting part of the bigger picture of this deal is that Barcelona’s rivals, Real Madrid, have almost completed the signing of Tottenham’s Luka Modric. The Modric deal will mean Madrid’s Nuri Şahin is allowed to leave, departing to Arsenal on loan… to replace Alex Song. In effect, Tottenham selling Modric potentially strengthens their own rivals, Arsenal. Therefore, Song’s departure could possibly be seen in a different light, as £15m plus Sahin on a season long loan would leave Arsenal with enough time and money to find an effective replacement.