Surely there isn’t a Gunners player in the last six years who has come to personify the team’s fortunes as aptly as our mercurial midfielder Abou Diaby. Inconsistent, prone to bizarre errors, often missing in action… Diaby can also look the business with his close control, sinewy sorties and classy (but small) collection of goals.
Perhaps like Arsenal, Abou will point out that he’s been trying to perform since 2006 with one arm (or in his case one leg) tied behind his back. Just as the Arsenal have been labouring under high mortgage repayments and austerity measures at a time when Chelsea and Manchester City have been able to dip into a bottomless money pit, Diaby can point out the fact that his horrific ankle break away at Sunderland in May 2006 was a blow from which he is still battling to recover.
There are some who suggest that Diaby should do the decent thing, accept that he simply isn’t fit enough to withstand the rigours of Premier League football and retire, and that Arsene Wenger is indulging him by continuing to pay his (estimated) £60,000 per week salary. Then there are those who hope that next season Abou – like RVP this year – finds a decent injury free run of form in the team and delivers. After all, if we simply gave up on all Gunners players who have spent too much time on the treatment table in recent seasons, (RVP, Wilshere, Walcott, Sagna, Vermaelen and Rosicky), then we’d cast aside our best players. Even so, Abou Diaby is an exceptional case. He has always been a “problem player” – dating back to his early days in France.
At semi-professional outfit Red Star Paris, the club’s youth academy director Yves Henri Gergard described him as a “fairly quiet and frail individual.” Young Abou was seen as being a bit “different” from other players of his age, with an interest in religion, philosophy and science. A team mate claimed he was “a bit of a day dreamer,” quite apt for a youngster who was also interested in astronomy.
The killer quote about Abou comes from former Tottenham boss Jacques Santini, who coached Diaby at Auxerre, the club he played for before he joined Arsenal. Santini said: “Abou was one of the players I used at the start of the season and then he had to stop because of repetitive injuries. Maybe he was attracted by England and the money there. This probably did not force him to make all the necessary efforts to come back to his best level with us.” In other words, even before his days at Arsenal, and Dan Brown’s crunching challenge, which crushed his ankle, Abou Diaby was regarded as a bit flaky and a tad unreliable, unlike his team mates Kaboul and Sagna, who gained rave reviews for the quality and consistency of their displays. The general feeling at Auxerre was that they’d done well to offload a player who occasionally seemed to lack heart to a major London club for £2 million.
The second problem Diaby faced was that as soon as he arrived at Highbury in January 2006, he was immediately compared with Patrick Vieira, whom Diaby greatly admires, once describing the ex Gunners skipper as a “monument to French football.” Diaby, who has a similar running style to Vieira, joined Arsenal at a time when the team was labouring in 5th place, and looked likely to miss out on Champions League football. Vieira, who’d signed for Juventus six months earlier was greatly missed, and it was assumed that Diaby would slot immediately into the void, tanking up and down the pitch and defending and attacking with equal aplomb. Arsene Wenger suggested: “…there are a great deal of similarities between the pair.” Yet Diaby was quick to disagree, pointing out: “Patrick is very much more aggressive. I am better with a holding midfielder alongside me. Maybe as I develop, I’ll add more features to my game.”
Of course, that’s never happened. A few weeks after Diaby joined, Arsene himself did a quick U turn, claiming: “Patrick and Abou have a similar elegance and type of play but are not completely comparable.” The issue over Diaby’s most effective role in the team was placed on the backburner for nine months after the injury at Sunderland, and has never been completely answered in subsequent seasons, partly because he’s not had a long enough run of games.
Diaby’s “purple patches” – such as they are – have coincided with the club’s most promising runs of recent campaigns. At the start of the 2007–2008 season, with Arsenal cruising to the top of the league, he functioned effectively in a midfield with Fabregas and Flamini; the latter closed down the opposition, leaving Abou (who even then wasn’t a regular) free to stroll forward. The highlight of that spell was arguably his thunderous drive from 30 yards against Derby in a 5-0 thrashing. In April 2008 he was man of the match at Anfield in the 2nd leg of the Champions League Quarter Final, cracking the Gunners into the lead after a sumptuous move. But the statistics can’t lie; Arsenal lost the tie anyway, and he didn’t play again that season due to a thigh injury. He’d missed the games preceding the Liverpool clash after being sent off against Bolton for a studs-high challenge.
He was in fine fettle at the start of 2009–2010 with Arsenal once again in pole position. This time, he looked the part alongside Song and Fabregas, and at his best, he looked like a classy, thrusting midfield presence, with a venomous and accurate shot on him. Yet you always felt that Abou could offer more, and the supporters expected him to “get stuck in” with a bit more vigour. In 2009, Cesc Fabregas said: “Fans need to be patient with Abou, as his injuries have clearly set him back, and I see him as more creative than destructive in midfield. He can’t be both.” Diaby’s critics point out that he’s actually neither, because he’s only made 112 appearances for the club – many as substitute – in over six years. Diaby, still only 26, has virtually disappeared from view in the last eighteen months, and is remembered chiefly for the rush of blood that saw him sent off at Newcastle last season when his team was 4-0 up and cruising. We all know what happened next…
Based on hard facts, it’s hard to argue that Diaby is anything other than an expensive dead weight who needs to be shipped out sharpish, like Almunia, Denilson and Bendtner (and at least they turned up when needed). Yet there is still at least a degree of goodwill displayed towards Diaby, as shown by the ovation he received when he came on as a substitute against Chelsea in April 2012. In the few minutes he was on the pitch, he displayed his customary silky touch, and glided forward and probed in a way no other player at the club does. I hoped he might have a late season renaissance, and that he’d come good. Instead he “broke down in training” again.
To some, Diaby is the classic example of an overindulged player to whom Wenger is absurdly loyal; a symptom of everything that is wrong at Arsenal and why the Gunners don’t get sufficient bang for their buck when it comes to players’ wages. After all, he’s still got two years left on his lucrative contract, and he’s barely kicked a ball for 18 months. To others, who suggest that Wenger has partly mismanaged him, Diaby is an unlucky player, who even when fit was never entirely sure of his worth and role in the team, in a manner similar to the plight of Arshavin.
My head says that Diaby is finished at Arsenal, if not as a professional at the top level. My heart says give him one last chance, and see if he can’t miraculously rediscover his fitness. Time will tell, but there isn’t long left, I fear.