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Dec 17, 2009

Parlour: Song can plug Arsenal's midfield hole

For 14 years, Arsene Wenger has been producing Arsenal sides dedicated to the art of playing attractive football, packed with players capable of producing the sublime. But in teams full of roses, it's necessary to have a couple of thorns for company, whose purpose is to allow their more eye-catching counterparts to flourish.

Wenger has come under increasing criticism for fielding teams bereft of such thorns over the past four barren years, with many claiming that a lack of fighting spirit and tendency to be bullied by more physically imposing teams is responsible for the levels of dust accumulating in the Gunners' trophy cabinet.

There are certainly some clear examples that spring to mind - three successive defeats to Bolton at the Reebok Stadium between 2004-05 and 2006-07 and more recent losses at Stoke last season and Chelsea at the Emirates just two weeks ago could all be justifiably attributed to an overwhelming outmuscling by the opposition.

This weakness comes as quite a surprise when considering Wenger's formative years at Highbury. In the 1998 double winning side, his roses - the likes of Denis Bergkamp, Marc Overmars and Nicolas Anelka - were supported by a strong aggressive spine of thorns. A formidable and robust backline contained Tony Adams at its heart and the midfield could boast the uncompromising trio of Emmanuel Petit, Patrick Vieira and Ray Parlour.

Parlour played under Wenger for eight years as a biting midfielder and unsung hero, whose importance to the Gunners was often overshadowed by the superstar team-mates around him. The current Arsenal side are crying out for a bit of grit and Parlour admits that the make-up of Wenger's current midfield differs greatly from the Frenchman's sides of old.

"You look at that midfield there and I wouldn't say it is at the level of a few years ago because we were probably a bit more forceful," Parlour told ESPN Soccernet. "But they have players in there who are very technically gifted and that's the way Arsene Wenger thinks he will win the Premier League. It will be interesting to see if he can or not but at the moment they have a chance."

But despite reservations about Arsenal's midfield strength, Parlour picks out Alex Song as a player with the potential to provide the missing muscle that has hampered the progress of Wenger's young side.

"Alex Song has been excellent. In front of the back four has been where the problems have been. Mathieu Flamini's leaving a couple of years ago was a big loss but Song has come in this season and he has been absolutely brilliant. He has surprised everybody with how he has played the role. He is more of a centre-half and that has helped the way he has played because he knows how to defend."

Parlour is optimistic about the future of the Gunners' midfield and believes that if Wenger is tempted to spend in January, it is Arsenal's defence and attack that require more urgent attention.

"I would look at it and say he hasn't got to change too much but maybe the Robin Van Persie injury may give him the opportunity to bring another forward. Arsenal need to get strength up there. [Andrei] Arshavin's done well, but I think he is more effective coming from midfield, and whether Eduardo is fit enough to last the season is an issue.

"Centre-half could be a position he needs to look at too. At the moment he is getting the best out of the centre-backs because [Thomas] Vermaelen and [William] Gallas have been excellent. But if one of them got injured they might struggle."

Arsenal have been linked with a host of strikers since Robin Van Persie's injury and the subsequent failure of the famed horse placenta treatment to alleviate his pain, and while Parlour would love to see Wolfsburg striker Edin Dzeko in a Gunners shirt, he feels Wenger should be looking closer to home for someone to fill the void left by the Dutchman.

"A lot of the top class players have been involved in the Champions League and that's the problem. Dzeko has been mentioned and he looks a decent player and a good goalscorer but he will be cup-tied. Saying that, Wenger brought in Arshavin last year so who knows?

"I think Carlton Cole would be a brilliant option. He has improved so much and I think he would be a good signing. He is one of those players who has good feet for a big guy and he could offer Arsenal something different.

"Whether he is an Arsene Wenger kind of player I don't know but certainly I believe he would make the team better. To score as many goals as he has at West Ham in a struggling team is hard. If he was playing in a good side then maybe he would score double that. But I think it's more likely Wenger will sign someone on loan in the January window who is going to play until the end of the season and score goals, and then see what happens from there."

Playing in some of Arsenal's greatest sides, it was often difficult for Parlour to make an impression when surrounded by the likes of Overmars, Bergkamp, and Anelka - in the 1998 double-winning side, and then later Henry, Pires and Ljungberg - in the "Invincibles" side of the unbeaten 2003-04 campaign.

But both Wenger and Arsenal's fans appreciated the tenacious Englishman's efforts and in 2008, Gunners supporters voted him the club's 19th greatest player of all-time, just one place behind one-time record scorer Cliff Bastin and ahead of the likes of Paul Merson, Frank McLintock and Ted Drake.

Parlour played as an aggressive, more defensive minded right-midfielder than the man currently occupying the Gunners' right flank, Theo Walcott. But despite their obvious differences in style and stature, and the recent criticism levelled at Walcott after some disappointing displays, Parlour believes the fleet-footed winger could etch his own name into the Arsenal history books.

"I used to defend better than Theo but I certainly couldn't boast his pace. He's lighting quick. I did do all the right-backs work for them, though, as I'm sure Lee Dixon would have told you when he was 38. I started as a natural central midfielder but I went over to the right because of the talent we had.

"It is a very energetic position as you have to go up and down and support your forwards and obviously defend. Theo's definitely got the energy required and going forward he's electric. He has had a couple of tough games of late but he's got what it takes to be a very special player.

"The main aim for him is to get a regular place for Arsenal. We certainly haven't seen the best of Theo Walcott yet. It is important for him to play week-in-week-out in a good Arsenal team and if he does, he should make the England World Cup squad without a doubt."

Ray Parlour was speaking on behalf of Barclays Ticket Office, which is giving fans the chance to win a pair of free Barclays Premier League tickets every 90 minutes throughout the 2009-10 Barclays Premier League season. Request a receipt from any Barclays ATM to enter or visit www.barclaysticketoffice.com

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