2014 FIFA World Cup, 32 players to watch, April 2014, Featured

32 Players to Watch in Brazil: # 31 Alex Song

The key to Cameroon surviving the group stage for the first time since 1990.

The key to Cameroon surviving the group stage for the first time since 1990.

Neil W. Blackmon

We continue our 32 Players to Watch at the 2014 FIFA World Cup feature with a look at one of the more enigmatic talents in the field, Cameroon’s Alex Song. For a refresher on how these pieces work, see our piece on # 32, Shaqiri of Switzerland.

# 31 Alex Song

Country: Cameroon

Club: Barcelona

Position: Midfielder

American-Based Professional Athlete “Soulmate”: Jrue Holiday, PG, New Orleans Pelicans

The chance to advance at this summer’s World Cup for Cameroon’s Indomitable Lions will hinge on Cameroon finding link-up play to keep all-universe forward Samuel Eto’o involved in proceedings and scoring goals. Cameroon is a proud, soccer mad country that fancies itself among the finest footballing sides in Africa, but they have not advanced past the group stage at a World Cup since Roger Milla and company went on a magical run to the quartefinals in 1990. Eto’o has made no secret in the past two years about which of his international teammates must be at the top of his game for Cameroon to navigate a tricky group featuring hosts Brazil, underrated Croatia and ever-dangerous Mexico; that teammate is Alex Song. Eto’o has criticized the current Barcelona and former Arsenal man the past two years, and as recently as last month suggested that Song must move past Barcelona after the World Cup to get the most out of the prime of his career. Eto’o is notoriously candid– but there’s merit to his argument regarding Song. Song has played sparingly at Barcelona since moving to the storied club from Arsene Wenger’s Arsenal in 2012– and if he hopes to become the player that his talent suggests he can, a move would be wise. To make the best move possible, Song needs to put in a strong performance in Brazil. For this reason, he is our # 31 Player to Watch.

Song was brilliant pushed high up Arsenal's 2011/12 midfield trio.

Song was brilliant pushed high up Arsenal’s 2011/12 midfield trio.

There’s little question, among football writers and scouts alike, that Song has the talent to be one of the better players on the field this summer. Anyone who watched Alex Song grow from a frustrating and plodding nineteen year old upon his move to Arsenal to a key cog in Wenger’s midfield in the 2010 campaign understands the special nature of the talent Cameroon have at their disposal in Song. Song is the type of player, according to his former manager Wenger, who can “instantly turn defense into attack” and can play “advanced or sitting deep, and look like he’s played there his whole life.” That’s Alex Song on a great day.

Song takes on a more creative role for Cameroon than he did at Arsenal (and certainly more than he does when he plays for Barcelona). Without the likes of Iniesta, Xavi, or even in his Arsenal days, Denilson, Fabregas or Nasri at his link-up disposal, Song is tasked, essentially, with playing far more ambitious passes and ushering Cameroon quickly from defense to attack. It’s a tall order but Song has demonstrated that capability with aplomb at Arsenal. The big question is whether the Song from the Emirates can arrive in Brazil this summer.

When Barcelona signed Alex Song in 2012, they weren’t making the purchase to have him replicate the midfield anchor and surprising playmaker role he played at Arsenal. Instead, they were replacing Seydou Keita, who, himself a gifted midfielder, was tasked with giving Barca a physical and tenacious holder in Barca’s center. The fact that Song could perhaps offer a bit of the Mascherano center-half/center-back role as well didn’t hurt, but the reality was Barca envisioned Song as the best possible replacement for the departed Keita, a Guardiola favorite and a quiet but uncompromising leader in the dressing room.

Eto'o thinks that Song's summer is critical for his future. He's right. Song knows it.

Eto’o thinks that Song’s summer is critical for his future. He’s right. Song knows it.

The results in Barcelona have been somewhere south of mixed. The attempt to convert him to a centerback was abandoned after disastrous early returns. While Keitha rarely started, Song has featured even less, and offered less defensively than Keita, who was an integral piece in Barca’s ability to hold Champions League leads in his final season at Camp Nou. The reality is, there is truth to Eto’o’s claim that it is time for Song to move on from Barca. The good news is his role for Cameroon offers him a chance to showcase the talents that got him to Barca in the first place.

At Arsenal, Song’s final campaign was the most similar to the role he’s asked to play at Cameroon. That season (2011/12), he formed a fluid midfield triumverate with Mikel Arteta and either Rosicky or Aaron Ramsey. In doing so, he was typically the most advanced, and his link-up play with Robbie van Persie was pristine. Song finished fourth in the Premier League with eleven assists behind only three world-class players: David Silva, Antonio Valencia and Juan Mata.

That role as the highest midfielder in a triangle is where he’s likely to slot in for the Indomitable Lions. They’ll need every ounce of his link-up ability to feed Samuel Eto’o and move the line, or Cameroon won’t survive Group A. In a group with the hosts Brazil, three rather equally matched sides: Croatia, Mexico and Cameroon, are essentially battling for one spot in the second round. It’s a huge opportunity for Song, a player with a great deal to prove.

Mr. Lauren Cheney has another soulmate.

Mr. Lauren Cheney has another soulmate.

This leads us to Song’s American-based professional athlete soulmate, New Orleans Pelicans point guard Jrue Holiday, another player lost in the mix with a great deal to prove.

Holiday, who has his own marital connection to the beautiful game as the husband of USWNT regular Lauren Cheney (now Holiday), began his NBA career with the Philadelphia 76ers after a star-studded career at storied UCLA. Holiday was traded to the New Orleans Pelicans at last year’s draft, leaving the 76ers and received, in New Orleans, as the replacement for former franchise heart and soul Chris Paul. Like Song, the perception is that Holiday has struggled to fill the shoes of his predecessor (though it’s worth noting the distinction here that Song replaced Keita directly and Paul had left before Holiday arrived.) 

Holiday, a 6’4 point guard who is strong, fast and physically imposing despite only average (NBA) height, was always highly regarded defensively because of his quickness and ability to pester opposing players in the passing lanes. His point guard credentials, however, were questionable, largely because he was never a great passer and not a particularly lethal slasher or finisher at the rim. Despite these perceived weaknesses, Holiday developed in Philadelphia into an an All-Star who transformed the 76ers from a miserable team mired in the lottery to a fringe playoff team. In fact, his play was so good his final year in a 76ers uniform that he earned praise from Chris Paul, widely regarded as the best point guard in the NBA, and was named one of the NBA’s finest point guards by Sports Illustrated. This acclaim and success, which was similar to what Song experienced at Arsenal, made it odd that he would be traded at the NBA draft, with the strangest twist being that he went to Paul’s old team, New Orleans.

In Holiday, the Pelicans hope to have a long-term replacement for CP 3.

In Holiday, the Pelicans hope to have a long-term replacement for CP 3.

Holiday is as critical to the Pelicans future as Song is to Cameroon’s summer. Holiday, without a Samuel Eto’o figure- runs the show offensively, just as Song is asked to do for country. For Cameroon, Song is the symphony conductor, the guy who pulls the strings to get to Eto’o. For the Pelicans, Holiday is the bridge to the future, the leader who pulls the strings while Tyreke Evans, Eric Gordon and most importantly, Anthony Davis, grow up. Holiday has missed the second half of this season due to injury, but despite criticism, he’s been metrically just as productive in New Orleans as he was in Philadelphia, scoring around 15 ppg, dishing out about 8 assists a night and shooting the ball (45%, 39% 3p) better than he has his entire career.  

Despite these statistics, Holiday will have a great deal to prove next season. Tyreke Evans and Eric Gordon are developing faster than expected. Holiday, who had to be relied upon to score in Philly, is now tasked with running the show for others- something he hasn’t done since high school really, given that he was slotted off as a two-guard behind Darren Collison at UCLA. But All-Star guards don’t grow on trees, and no one has ever questioned Holiday’s talent. The 76ers were better with Holiday, and for different reasons, the Pelicans will be better with Holiday as well. It’s just a matter of timing.

Song is in a similar boat as Mr. Lauren Cheney. His massive talent and ability to transition from defense to attack should afford him an opportunity to leave Camp Nou in the summer transfer window and find a new club that will better showcase his talent. What club, how nice a deal, and how globally recognized Song can become, of course, will be largely influenced by his performance in Brazil.

It’s worth nothing that Mexico’s 3-5-2–which made Michael Bradley look like “the best player in the world”, according to El Tri’s own manager, and allowed Kyle Beckerman to blow up Mexican forays down the US center and quickly move the ball towards the attacking players–is precisely the type of defense Song seems built to dissect. That will be Cameroon’s first match at the 2014 World Cup, played in Natal just a few days before the USA and Ghana kick off the “Group of Death.” North America will certainly be watching El Tri. Cameroon, and perhaps the world, will be watching Alex Song. You should too.

Neil W. Blackmon is Co-Founder of The Yanks Are Coming. He can be reached at nwblackmon@gmail.com and you can find him on Twitter at @nwb_usmnt.

Neil W. Blackmon