Wednesday, July 24, 2019
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How good could Abou Diaby have been?

Abou Diaby (courtesy of Arsenal Fan TV)Arsenal hearts were warmed this week, when Olympique de Marseille announced the signing of former Gunner Abou Diaby. There will have been plenty of soul-searching in Islington too though. With better luck on the injury front, how good could Diaby have been?

 



At 29, and after so many injury-ravaged years in North London, it would take the coldest and stoniest of hearts to begrudge the bloke four or five healthy years before retirement. However, it’s hard to be optimistic given the Frenchman’s awful 42-item injury record.



Diaby spoke this week of a ‘new chapter’ beginning at Marseille. But how might his book read by now if the past nine seasons had been fitter ones?



Top 10 Diaby Goals



Last year, Arsène Wenger talked about using Diaby in a deeper-lying midfield role. But he warned it would only be an option if the player enjoyed the change, because he was naturally a more ‘offensive-minded player’.



It felt as though Wenger was desperate to get Diaby on the pitch but equally to keep him out of trouble. The defensive midfield position has changed a lot. What was once a tough-tackling stop job is now something altogether more considered. Something that calls for the ability to spot and execute the full passing range - not just to keep the ball moving but to put teammates quickly and unexpectedly into goal scoring positions.



Diaby vs Liverpool (2012)



I think Diaby would have done well at the job. His close control, his vision, his ability to shift weight and change the direction of play in an instant, and his perfectly measured through balls were suited to the role. But I don’t think he’d have enjoyed it.



He’s been good, Diaby. He’s been really good for Arsenal tonight… [Diaby scores a wonder goal] Wow. I said he’d been good tonight but that was just fantastic.” -- Andy Gray, Arsenal vs Aston Villa, December 2008



What’s most striking for me is how accurate the constant Patrick Vieira comparisons actually seemed to be. Comparisons of this sort are often based on little more than physical resemblance (of a borderline casual racist sort - Lukaku and Drogba, for instance).



But the Diaby/Vieira comparison holds water. If Diaby had the physical and technical attributes to succeed in front of his own back four, he also had everything you need to be a total menace to the opposition’s. A penchant for starting and finishing one-twos. An incredible turn of pace that made his runs into the box terrifying. The close control, body strength, ability to shift direction, and dribble/trick repertoire to beat a man from a standing start. A powerful and accurate finisher.



Diaby: Career highs & lows



The two players differed in many respects, something both Diaby and Wenger acknowledged over the years. But Diaby looked every ounce the natural successor to Vieira in Arsenal’s midfield - beating opponents with skill, speed and bursting into the opposition penalty area.



"I believe Vieira was more of a passer of the ball. Diaby is more of a dribbler, more offensive and makes more penetrating runs. Vieira was more of a constructor. They have a similar elegance and type of play but are not completely comparable." -- Arsène Wenger, 2009



The question, then, is who would have given him the platform to thrive? Vieira had Petit, Edu and Gilberto Silva. Mathieu Flamini has never really convinced as a replacement. Neither has Arteta. Francis Coquelin was a revelation last year but he was an 18-year-old reserve team player during Diaby’s most productive spell (2009/10). His success then, perhaps, would’ve hinged on Wenger finding a suitably sensible defensive counterpart.



There’s an annoying tendency to overstate the potential of players whose careers have been hampered by injury. We do it with the ones who refuse to grow up too - Ravel Morrison, Hatem Ben Arfa, Mario Balotelli, Lee Sharpe. But I don’t think Diaby’s one of them.



He had the vast majority of what’s needed to become a very fine player, one who’d earn far more than 16 international caps. And if the past tense seems disrespectful for a man in his 20s who’s just signed for a new club, it’s unintended. It’s simply an expression of regret, from a Gooner, that I never got to enjoy an immensely gifted footballer, at the height of his physical powers, for more than a couple of seasons. Good luck Abou.

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