Substitute

What do Emmanuel Petit, Gilberto Silva, and Alex Song have in common? They all started their careers as a central defender.

Last year, when Mathieu Flamini departed for AC Milan, Denilson inherited the role of being the defensive shield for the back four. He was largely dismissed as being ineffective, even though statistics may prove otherwise. Slowly, Alex Song started to step into the breach, as Wenger started tweaking our team towards the 4-3-3 formation at the end of last year.

This year, Alex Song has been the revelation of the season for most people, but not here at eighteen86. We were pretty confident of his ability, going so far as to name him our Player of the Season last year. Easily capable of filling in for Gallas and Vermaelen when they go forward, Song has sometimes played deep enough to be considered the third central defender on the pitch. He’s also broken up attacks, generally been all over the pitch, and played fine passes as well. So, saying that he’s just a player who sits deep and helps to defend is selling him short. That being said, his upbringing cannot be overlooked. In fact, at the end of last year, Arsene himself stated that Song was more suited to being a defender than a midfielder. Whether or not those were meant to be inspirational words for Song, that’s up to you.

Patrick Vieira was a dominant box to box midfielder. He was never a defensive shield for Arsenal. He was never a holding player for Arsenal, not quite. Emmanuel Petit and Gilberto Silva did that job for us when Vieira was in the team. The fact that Patrick could tackle like a demon and intimidate opponents added to his awesome ability. It helped stabilize our team defensively and made opponents shake in their boots. When Wenger tried to play Vieira and Cesc, that did not work. We didn’t have enough to repel attacks and nothing clicked. Had it been given more time, it may have proved more fruitful, but we’ll never really know.

After Vieira was sold, Wenger paired Gilberto with Cesc in the middle. This worked on and off, but without the penetrative power of Vieira, something felt missing. At the time, Cesc’s defensive abilities were nearly non-existent; he has actually improved quite a bit in that regard. So, that partnership never quite worked either.

Two years later, Gilberto was off on international duty with Brazil. Wenger decided to pair Cesc with Flamini and things started to click. The reason for this seems quite clear. Despite his small tactical brain, Flamini provided aggression and hustle, things that rubbed off on newly permanent starters Alexander Hleb and Tomas Rosicky. That year, we defended as a unit. Everybody except Robin van Persie tracked back and applied pressure on the ball. Capello made the observation that Arsenal attacks with eight men and defend with ten men. We were the dominant team, until Cesc got an injury. But the formula made sense. 4-4-2 still worked.

The next year, when Flamini left, Wenger tried to continue with 4-4-2, but abandoned it near the end of the year. Denilson is a fine interceptor of the ball, but he’s not quite the player that Petit, Gilberto, and Song are. That’s no knock on him, but he’s not the partner for Cesc in a 4-4-2 system. That’s what precipitated the move to 4-3-3. With Arshavin and van Persie in the team, Wenger realized that he needed an extra body in midfield to protect our defense.

When Robin van Persie went down and Alex Song proving his worth beyond all doubt, I thought a change to a 4-4-2 could be possible. Now, Cesc, with a few years experience and adding more to his all around game, and Alex Song could form a partnership and we could play 4-4-2 with Arshavin in the hole. That didn’t happen. Instead, Diaby has stepped up and proved that he can provide an impact from central midfield in an advanced position. Remember, when we first acquired Diaby, we thought that Diaby would play the tough road fixtures and Cesc would play the home fixtures. They were never supposed to be partners in the middle, so let’s dispel that possibility immediately.

Which brings us all the way back to Denilson. He will be the one to fill in for Alex Song. Denilson has not played that role in a 4-3-3 system, but that base can only help him. Ideally, a 4-3-3 is a dangerous system because it’s a 4-3-3 while going forward and a 4-5-1 when we defend. He’ll also have Diaby alongside him and Ramsey, who can also put a foot in occasionally.

I believe Denilson can do the job. But will his back hold up? That’s the real question.

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