This is the chant that has been regularly heard to ring out from the Ashburton Grove faithful this season. As well as being heavily laced with irony, it is a sign of the esteem in which the player is now held and recognition of how far he has come.
This season has seen a period of sustained development for Alex Song who has quickly established himself as a key player in the Arsenal first-team. Having made his breakthrough last term, the second season, much like a musician’s second album is always tricky, yet the Cameroonian has sailed through the test. Leading into the weekend match with Sunderland, concerns over the fitness of Song and Andrey Arshavin dominated the build-up, and looking back 12 months – or even just to the beginning of the season – it would have been hard to imagine that Song would be considered as influential as the Russian.
Arshavin lit up the Premier League last term and re-invigorated Arsenal’s form since his January move, but has failed to reach those heights again this season. This is largely attributable to being played out of position and carrying a foot injury through Arsenal’s demanding schedule. Despite his difficulties this term, he has still produced some magical moments – most notably his winner against Liverpool at Anfield – and has increased his work-rate. Ironically he would be most suited to playing off Nicklas Bendtner as the central striker, but the Dane’s return has dovetailed with the Russian’s injury absence.
By contrast, Song’s rise has been slow and steady, but more sustained. Upon his arrival from Bastia in 2005, Wenger had a plethora of options for defensive midfield. In that season Gilberto Silva was still in his pomp as Arsenal made their way to the Champions League final, and highly-rated youngster Lassana Diarra had been captured from rivals Chelsea and looked to be the heir to the throne. Mathieu Flamini, having deputised superbly at left-back during the Champions League run, moved back into central midfield the following season and struck up a successful partnership with Cesc Fabregas. As such, Gilberto was sparingly used and, being the wrong side of 30,was allowed to leave to join Panathinaikos at the end of the 2007/08 season. Prior to this, an unsettled Diarra requested a transfer and was allowed to move to Portsmouth in the January transfer window on the strength of Flamini and the developing Song. What the manager had not banked on was Flamini sitting out his contract to move to Milan as a free agent that summer, leaving the talented, but inexperienced Song as the only recognised defensive midfielder.
Once given the chance, Song impressed in the holding role and went on to rack up 48 appearances in all competitions last season. It is not the first time that opportunity has knocked for the youngster. At his first club in France – Red Star – he had attended a trial merely hoping to meet people and make friends, but was quickly signed up, with the club seeking special dispensation from the French Football Federation to accelerate his development and promote him up the youth ranks ahead of schedule. As fate would have it, the year before, Red Star’s outstanding player was Abou Diaby who would again be a teammate of Song’s in the future.
Far from resting on his laurels, the youngster capitalised on the opportunity afforded to him at Arsenal last season, much as he did as a youngster in France. He has sought to improve his discipline, both positionally and in terms of committing fouls, and has firmly entrenched himself in the starting XI. Despite his successful turn-out last season, doubters remained, preferring the rangy Diaby to step back into the role to add a more physical presence in the middle. However, it was Song’s determination and desire to succeed that convinced many he is the man for the role.
Another player confounding the doubters and winning over the home support is Emmanuel Eboue. Infamously, he was substituted off against Wigan, having come on as a substitute himself, to jeers from his own club’s fans. After a difficult period, he has won over the crowd and his energy and dynamism down the right flank are valuable assets to the Gunners. Particularly on Saturday his raiding runs caused havoc for the Sunderland defence and he was a key factor in the manner of the victory. The resilience and character shown by Eboue and Song as well as the determination and self-sacrifice shown by Arshavin this term provide key examples of the attributes needed if Arsenal are to go all the way and lift the title this May.