Writer: Tim Stillman
Date:Friday May 1 2009
Picking a Player of the Month for April is a tasking quest indeed. Injuries that looked to be clearing up at the end of March have become prescient in the ranks once again. So the comebacks of Cesc Fabregas, who has helped himself to seven assists and two goals this month, and Emmanuel Adebayor, who has scored three (including a wonder goal against Villarreal) have been offset by injuries to Clichy, Gallas and van Persie- all of whom are regular contenders for the award. But where there is crisis, there is opportunity, Fabregas and Nasri have had to adapt to new roles in the team whilst a serious contender for the award would have to be young Kieran Gibbs. There are baptisms of fire, then there are your first senior games (Carling Cup withstanding) at Old Trafford, Anfield and Wembley. That he has not looked out of place at any venue is to his great credit, not just talent wise, but in terms of mental fortitude. Andrey Arshavin continues to prove his immense worth to the side, most notably his four goal salvo at Anfield added to his strike at Wigan, but his two assists as well. Arshavin continues to add a lot of what has been missing from the Arsenal jigsaw with his speed of thought and his instant, first time passing. He is not afraid to be decisive in front of goal either, witness his first time strike at Wigan as well as his second at Anfield, robbing Arbeloa of the ball before walloping it into the net without so much as a second thought. He reminds me slightly of Bergkamp in front of goal, if a finish requires finesse, he will duly caress it into the net. But make no mistake, if the situation calls for a hefty piece of leather behind the ball, Arshavin is happy to swing back the forehand and administer the brutal uppercut.
However, Arshavin`s European ineligibility counts slightly against him, and whilst it is very tempting to award him a second player of the month gong in a row, I just cannot ignore the improvement in one player. In November 2006, on his full Premiership debut, Alex Song was mauled by the travelling Arsenal fans to the extent that he had to be hauled off by his manager. The abuse aimed at Song, then 19, was senseless. That evening at Craven Cottage was possibly the worst performance of the Wenger era, yet a visceral section of Gooners ignored the ten more senior underperformers and focused their poison on a 19 year old. It looked to be the death knell of his Arsenal career. Song became something of an anathema amongst Arsenal fans (predominantly amongst the supporters who did not go to Carling Cup games and who had not seen him play). But Wenger persisted, assuring us that "Song will be a very big player for us, you`ll see." It astounds me that people are still willing to question Wenger`s judgement of young players. This is particularly relevant to the case of Nicklas Bendtner who, most believe, has been given ample chance to show his mettle. The word from the inside of the club is that Wenger considers Bendtner to be one of Arsenal`s brightest sparks in training, hence he is persisting with him now until that potential enunciates itself on the pitch. He sees some talent in Bendtner worth mining, it has been the same with Song too. Since February, Song has begun to show a few different strings to his bow.
Signs of embryonic promise have fluctuated; during our run to the 2007 Carling Cup Final, Song was probably our best player before injury cruelly robbed him of a final berth. Masterful performances in the defensive midfield role at grounds such as Goodison Park, Anfield and White Hart Lane marked him as a player of potential. Unfortunately, being that these were Carling Cup away fixtures, the majority of Gooners did not get a chance to see his unmasked potential and chose to side with the ignorant jibber jabber of the majority of Arsenal blogs who had also not seen these games. Yet more promise has manifestly presaged itself with his masterful shackling of Steven Gerrard in the league fixture with Liverpool in December. Arsenal`s F.A. Cup run afforded Song a run of games in the February and March period and he has flourished, the confidence pouring out of him. Two brilliant assists in the Burnley cup tie and another thoughtful back-heel for Eboue in the 4-0 demolition of Blackburn showed that Song was not merely a midfield destroyer. The month of April has shown that this has been no ephemeral phenomenon. Against City at the beginning of a hectic April, he easily coped with the threats of Robinho, Elano and Wright Phillips. Song had arrived at the point where Wenger found it difficult to drop him, choosing instead to select both Song and Denilson in a dual defensive midfield role with Fabregas pushing further up. After admittedly being over run by a Senna inspired Villarreal in the first half in Spain, Song and Denilson stepped up in the second half and really began to dictate the midfield, unchastened by their first half experience.
For the league fixture against Wigan, Denilson was pushed out wide to accommodate Song in a central role. He did not disappoint either, earning the man of the match award as well as elucidating how untethered his play has become lately with a delightful saunter past three Wigan defenders before planting the ball into the net. In the home leg against Villarreal he was charged with the unenviable task of shackling Robert Pires. He did so with distinction, the two players swapped shirts at the final whistle, the truth is that Pires` shirt had been in Song`s pocket for quite some time before executing that congenial gesture. Song was then rested for the F.A. Cup Semi Final defeat to Chelsea, a decision that causes some considerable consternation amongst Arsenal fans and cited as one of the key reasons for defeat. The very people that derided him having not seen him play in the flesh, were now apoplectic with rage that he had been excluded for a game of this magnitude. "The hapless soldier`s sigh/ Runs in blood down Palace walls" as William Blake once put it. (Though I can`t pretend to be entirely sure he was talking about Alex Song then). We football fans are fickle creatures indeed. What price that when Wenger rests Nicklas Bendtner for the 2011 Semi Final against Liverpool, fans will take to blood lined streets in protest?
Song still has plenty to learn though, the 4-4 draw with Liverpool at Anfield saw him play with authority and conviction, hounding the Liverpool midfielders all he could. However, Liverpool`s threat comes from slightly deeper without Gerrard, with Alonso and Mascherano pulling the strings. Song was also one of the few players to emerge from Old Trafford with any credit, but in truth, the relentless pressing of Fletcher, Carrick and Anderson left him outnumbered. He bought the ball forwards with intelligence and vigour, but his positional sense still needs to be a bit more savvy as he was left unsure whether to press back against United`s midfield trio, or whether to sit back and screen his back four against the threat of Rooney and Ronaldo. However, the vital signs are good, he is visibly learning with each game and now seems to have dislodged the unerringly consistent Denilson as our first choice defensive midfielder, Arsene has even changed his system to help accommodate him this month. My personal opinion is that the experimentation with that system may be over, it will be interesting to see where Song fits in in a more conventional 4-4-2 alongside Fabregas. But on this month`s evidence, he has the ability to adapt.LD.
August: Samir Nasri
September: Theo Walcott
October: Robin van Persie
November: Aaron Ramsey
January: Robin van Persie
February: William Gallas
March: Andrey Arshavin
Date:Friday May 1 2009
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