When Alex Song strode onto the Upton Park pitch before the match against Southampton last August, many fans would be forgiven for rubbing their eyes in disbelief. What was a current Barcelona midfielder and former Arsenal prodigy doing in East London? Had he ‘pulled a Robinho’ and signed for the wrong club?
It turned out that, in fact, the Cameroonian wizard had put pen to paper on a season-long loan deal at the Boleyn. He seemed excited — maybe even as much as the claret and blue was — to be pulling on the jersey, sold by Sam Allardyce’s enthusiasm and apparent ‘project’, i.e. the move to the Olympic Stadium. Song was promised the opportunity to make a mark on a club once again, following a not so successful stint at the Camp Nou. After all, Barca isn’t the easiest club in the world to carve out a living as a midfielder when your competition is Andres Iniesta, Xavi Hernandez and Sergio Busquets.
Opinions on Song have been mixed (with the traditional brand of Hammers pessimism thrown in, of course) but early on in the season he provided a different edge to West Ham’s game. Teams were coming to us with hopes of dominating, but were thwarted by physicality and incisive passing.
A decent run of form included wins against Liverpool and Manchester City, with a defence-splitter of a pass from Song proving the undoing of City. That win left us in fourth place after nine games, encouraging what unfortunately turned out to be premature talk of European qualification on the lips of supporters.
But would Song be worth a longer-term investment by West Ham? Has the £3million loan fee been value for money and what would he cost the club going forward? Let’s first look at the ‘yes’ pile. It goes without saying that the big man brings with him the reputation of a cast-iron midfield maestro – on his good days, at least. He oozes raw quality on the ball and can pick out those unseen, killer passes at will.
He did it at Arsenal and seems to still possess that natural eye for carving open defences. With the likes of Diafra Sakho and Enner Valencia now offering some movement in the box, this type of movement can be the difference between one point and three. His footballing maturity is deceptive, as Song is still only 27 years old. He has been at the top for so long that it is easy to forget that he potentially has a good five to six years or more left in the game, with potentially his best and most settled football ahead of him.
Looking at his buyout clause of £63million, he would obviously be out of reach for a club of West Ham’s size, but the more realistic transfer figure of £15m that has been mentioned seems a bit easier to swallow. A reported salary of £140,000 per-week is about the going rate for a flagship player in the Premier League these days, so it might be a necessity for the owners to cough it up. A big problem for West Ham has almost always been the amount of injuries suffered by our key players. To-date, Song has all but avoided long lay-offs due to injury, featuring in 24 of our 31 leagues games so far this season. Despite a few shaky performances, he has also delivered well.
It must also be a consideration for Gold and Sullivan that the club is moving into a period of transition, in which it cannot afford to fall short on the pitch. A weak season in the run up to the Olympic Stadium move would be devastating, with a good proportion of the fans still not convinced that it is for the best. Worldclass players are a must for the squad and we also have to attract more. Maybe Song can be the catalyst for additional marquee signings?
Although £15m might not seem a huge amount of money in today’s hyper-inflated transfer market, it is nevertheless a substantial amount that might be better spent on younger players across the park. Three players in all positions, as opposed to one ageing midfielder, might seem a more productive use of the club’s cash. Strength in depth will be vital in the final season at the Boleyn Ground if a strong run is to be achieved. There is a danger of being left short because of a misguided player purchase, a problem that has plagued us before now.
Song has so far cost West Ham around £100,000 per appearance in all competitions, plus his weekly wages. For that kind of money you might expect a more definite return on investment, even at the biggest clubs in the world. To spend this for another three or four years might equate to somewhat of a financial gamble. If the club is to achieve its aim of European football in Stratford over the next decade, the question might be whether signing a player like Song would be a good place to start. Is he a player worthy of building a side around? Is he the midfield dynamo that we require to play off of Mark Noble, and under which our younger players can develop?
On the evidence thus far, Song could well be worth shelling out for. But the price tag might be a tad excessive. It is the same fee that was paid to Arsenal for him at the age of 24. If it was negotiable — and goodness knows that FC Barcelona don’t need the money — then for the sake of progress and intent, he might just be a gamble worth taking.