The transfer window is in the midst of chaos with players coming and going, rumours and stories are floating and the “In the Knows” is in full effect on the social media. Given a hypothetical situation that Rennes midfielder, Yann M’Vila, joins Arsenal. After a summer long protracted saga of bluffing and double bluffing, could the Frenchman effectively replace now Barcelona player Alex Song? Analysis will be made towards what Song brought to the Arsenal side, both positive and negative, and comparative analysis will be made to what M’Vila offers, following a conclusion to whether M’Vila can fit our system, or maybe we’ll implement a new system? Should the transfer not materialise that we can treat this analysis as something that could have been, nothing more, and nothing less.
Alex Song’s recent departure to Spanish giants Barcelona came as a shock to many fans who thought Robin Van Persie would be the only star player to leave the Emirates this summer, however due to rumours of contractual disputes, agents, poor behaviour and many other things, the result was him being sold rather swiftly. Is Song replaceable? In order to answer that question, it is crucial to identify what Song offered. There is a misconception that Song was Arsenal’s defensive midfielder during the 2011/2012 season, however upon further analysis, it is clear to see that Mikel Arteta played deepest during the season and Alex Song was given more freedom to influence the play higher up the pitch. His 11 assist in the Premier League is a major feat for any player regardless of position, but at what cost did those assists come at? He has one of the highest through-balls/game ratios at the club with 0.7 and the lowest final-third passing accuracy of our attacking players with 31%. Considering Arsenal’s philosophy of ball retention in the attacking areas, Song’s incapacity to play the simple pass weakened Arsenal’s ball keeping abilities. Looking at his defensive capabilities, he still stacks up fairly well to other players in similar systems, positions and style. He comfortably out tackled City duo Yaya Toure (albeit Toure played higher up the first half of the season) and Barry last year with 3 tackles on average per game, compared to 1.7 of Toure and 2.5 of Barry. However with Cabaye, Parker and Carrick all breaching more than 3 tackle per game, it offers an opinion to how effective Song is defensively. Positional awareness is where most agree Alex Song is weakest, looking at a heat map taken from Alex Song’s performance against Manchester City last season, it is clear to tell which third of the pitch Song prefers to commit himself to.
As shown here, Song’s average position would be slightly right of central and operating between the higher ends of the midfield third. Looking at this just confirms the role that Song was given during the season, however it is difficult to analyse his position in relation to Arteta’s position without watching a match.
Looking at this for instance, the black circle represents Song’s position with the ball, his consistent willingness to attack the space ahead of him, although positive in effort, can have a negative effect on the rest of the team. The yellow circle is Arteta’s position, he is already forward and available for a pass, and Song’s foray forward has caused Ramsey to drop into a deeper position, when had Song stayed back (red line), Ramsey would be able to take up a much more threatening position centrally outside the box (green line). Song would often move forward into attacking areas when Arteta was already forward and although this created an overload in central midfield, Song’s ability in possession became even more important, because if he lost the ball Arsenal would be prone to counter attack without any central cover. Looking back at Song’s 31% final third pass completion, Arsenal were caught by this on quite a few occasions.
The positive effect on Song’s style of play is clear to see in some of the goals Arsenal have scored this season, he had clearly worked on his technical ability in order to play a style of pass which made him more effective as a box to box midfielder, this was touched on by Arsene Wenger, “First of all, if you asked Alex, ‘do you want to attack or defend?’, he would say attack, he is naturally a guy who tends to go forward and he always had good vision. He has improved his technique of transmission. When he arrived here, the passing of his longer balls was not the best. But he has worked on that, improved on that and now he can combine vision with technique.” That “technique of transmission” is what made Song very popular with the Arsenal crowd, and without question without his ability to play that chip ball into, more often than not, Van Persie’s path, Arsenal may not have succeeded in tight matches.
Much has been said about the French midfielder, ranging from his supposed poor attitude which was shown prior to the European Championships, to his position at Rennes. M’Vila is classed by many as an archetype defensive midfielder; however this couldn’t be further from the truth. During his time in Rennes, Tongo Doumbia (now at Aston Villa) was the more defensive of the two midfielders (Rennes lined up in a 4-2-3-1 formation, similar to that of Arsenal with a double pivot system). M’Vila’s ability on the ball cannot be questioned, statistics will show he averaged an 83% pass completion rate, although 1% less than Song, M’Vila averaged 6 more passes per game and 377 passes more during the season. Defensively M’Vila stacks up well against the Cameroonian, M’Vila averaged 3.08 tackles per game, not much more than Song, but averaged 2.47 interceptions per game in contrast to 1.97 that Alex Song attains. This is a testament to M’Vila’s greatest strength, his intelligence and tactical positioning. In contrast to Song, M’Vila is more likely to sit deeper and progress up the field at a slower rate. Once he feels the structure of the team is secure, he will then wonder further up the field and use his passing ability in more threatening areas. There are two sides to his game however, before analysis of those sides can be done, one must understand that at club level, more often than not Rennes will be dominated in possession, such as the example below when Rennes played eventual champions Montpellier towards the end of the season.
This heat map shows a stark contrast to Alex Song’s position, the position he takes up is more in line with an archetype defensive midfielder, however not too much analysis can be made of this due to the reason previously stated, Rennes are not a team who retain the ball for long periods. The examples that will be given will be M’Vila performing for France during the Euro 2012, the reason for this is France, like Arsenal are more likely to have a greater hold of possession, thus more accurate comparison can be made.
M’Vila vs. Spain
The diagram above illustrates the defensive positioning that M’Vila can take when his team is not in control of possession, during the match vs Spain, France couldn’t keep the ball and in order to try to build from the back, M’Vila sat deep and tried to become an extra pass in midfield. This is a testament to his ability to stay disciplined when the situation allows it.
M’Vila vs. Sweden
This match is more comparable to the situations that Arsenal will face (not including result), France dominated the ball 56.7% to Sweden’s 43.3% and M’Vila’s positioning during the match reflects this, he received the ball in deep positions as a player of his style would, but the difference is he made many forays forward in which he could influence the match. The difference between him and Song is the decisions when to move forward, and when to stay back.
M’Vila will fit into the current Arsenal system seamlessly; his positioning and intelligence on the pitch will allow a better understanding with Mikel Arteta who will also benefit. Now that Song has departed, Arsene Wenger will be more inclined to find a suitable replacement, perhaps he doesn’t need to look any further that this particular French midfielder.
Thanks to whoscored.com, EPL Index, Yahoo Match Centre, Opta StatsZone for statistics and diagrams.
Written by Zaheer Shah.