This article first appeared on Sabotage Times. Click or Diaby will hunt you down
The most inescapable facet of Abou Diaby’s career at Arsenal has been the comparison with Patrick Vieira. A tall, gangly French central midfielder of African descent playing at Arsenal under Arsène Wenger; the likenesses were invariably going to be addressed.
In fairness, they are quite a bit alike on the pitch. Their physical similarities mean that their playing styles have many shared components – both stride around the pitch using their long legs to retain possession, and, when on his game, Diaby uses his strength to hold off opponents in the same way as the former Arsenal captain did time and again at Highbury.
But while Vieira was a disciplined distributor, Diaby is a midfielder who likes to get forward, and often emphasises this in interviews. Having been pigeon-holed by many as a defensive midfielder due to his physical attributes, despite preferring to attack, it’s understandable that his progress has been delayed – and not just by injury – as it’s taken time to perfect his role at Arsenal.
Another player who’s suffered a similar categorization is Yaya Toure. At Barcelona he was classified as a holding midfielder due to his strength and size – it was assumed that he would follow the many midfielders of African descent in being a defensive player, but he seemed reluctant to play in a disciplined role. When he came to Manchester City, he was given freedom to drive forward from midfield into advanced positions, which suited him perfectly.
Comparisons between Diaby and Toure, like those between the current Arsenal number 2 and Vieira, may be easy to make, but there’s certainly weight behind them. Both of them are skilful midfielders who swim against the tide of stereotypes, preferring to break forward in support of attackers than stay back and protect the defence.
One of the main differences has recently been that while Toure has been on top of his game for a while, Diaby has struggled so long for any semblance of form, mainly due to injuries – not just the physical consequences but the mental aspect. His confidence seemed drained during matches, and he looked unsure of himself.
Quite what clicked against Liverpool is unclear. It may be that he just needed games under his belt, or that alongside Arteta given license to get forward everything finally came together for him, but his performance had pundits showering him with praise. The role he played was similar to that of Toure at Man City – alongside a disciplined distributor in midfield, given license to go forward.
Funnily enough, Vieira would probably be Diaby’s perfect central midfield partner. Like Arteta at Anfield, he would sit deep while Diaby probed forwards with driving runs, dancing pirouettes and penetrative passing. We finally saw Diaby produce something close to his best after seemingly laying dormant for so long, and Arsène Wenger will have been pleased to see his persistence pay off.
The comparison of Toure and Diaby isn’t exactly ground-breaking – the Arsenal midfielder made it himself after the game – but it certainly proves that Diaby can be a success after so long without a defined role. He seems to have found his calling, a role in which Toure so frequently excels for Manchester City, and one that should also help his new team-mate, Santi Cazorla. When Diaby breaks forward from midfield, Cazorla can drift into wide areas as he loves to do, with Diaby occupying his position. Indeed, we saw this for Cazorla’s goal at Anfield.
It will certainly give Arsenal unpredictability going forwards – rather than a rigid formation, the team will be free-flowing and fluid going forward. Last season it was similar, but the chaos that often broke down opposing teams also contributed to the Gunners’ own downfall; the lack of structure leading to a leaky defence.
Song was in Diaby’s box-to-box role, and Arteta’s function was slightly vague. This season it’s much clearer that he’s the disciplined holder and Diaby the one with license to get forward, and with more clarity Arsenal should benefit.
Wenger was widely derided for not buying a centre midfielder in the summer, especially after the sale of Song, but Diaby coming good against Liverpool seems to be vindicating him. Everyone knew of his talent, but the question was whether he could finally fulfil that potential. It was a risk to not strengthening centrally, but Diaby seems to have benefitted from the faith his manager put in him.
It took a while, but this may well prove to be another time where Arsène Wenger has the last laugh.
Abou Diaby is an interesting player. And by interesting, I mean incredibly frustrating.
All Arsenal fans must realise he’s immensely talented. Arsène Wenger agrees, and has persisted with the midfielder through-out his injury problems.
He has his fair share of detractors, and I’ve been amongst them. While his injury problems are frustrating, what’s also frustrating is how his attitude comes across when he does get on the pitch. Often he’s seemed vaguely disinterested, and his lackadaisical style leads to a lot of misplaced passes.
As I said, few people doubt Diaby’s talent. When he’s fit – and when he applies himself – he can be brilliant. I’d compare him to Manchester City’s Yaya Toure; a midfielder who, due to his appearance, physique and background, was pigeon-holed as a defensive midfielder, but is far more comfortable as a more offensive midfielder.
But the main difference for me, on top of the injuries Diaby has suffered, is application. When Yaya Toure plays, he seizes the game by the scruff of the neck, and imposes himself. Diaby, on the other hand, has often shied away from responsibility on the pitch and actually been fairly detrimental to Arsenal at times.
As mentioned earlier, his passing is often sloppy, and he’s sometimes very ponderous on the ball. In the past he has slowed down counter attacks and is regularly robbed of the ball while assessing his options.
There are some things he could do to improve this infuriating aspect of his game. He could make better use of his strength when shielding the ball, rather than timidly surrendering, but also improve his awareness – he needs to be aware of opposition players trying to win the ball, as well as being aware of passes to make, releasing the ball earlier rather than dwelling on it.
So far in pre-season, Diaby has looked good. He’s been able to play at the top of Arsenal’s three man midfield, and has looked purposeful and powerful, making use of his repertoire of attributes. His confidence seems back, and most importantly he’s swerved clear of injuries so far.
That confidence might be something I’ve over-looked in the past when criticising him. When you don’t get a run of games because of injuries, and simply can’t string one together, it must be difficult to build up any confidence, inhibiting your performances.
With the state that Arsenal’s midfield is in, Abou Diaby has a great chance to nail down a regular place in the side. Of course, that will depend on his luck with injuries, as few players have had such bad luck as he has (fellow Arsenal players Jack Wilshere and Tomas Rosicky will contest that, though). But it will also depend on his attitude when given a chance.
He won’t be able to wander through games as a passenger, which he’s done far too often in the past. Arsenal’s number two (what a ridiculous number for a midfielder) will need to stamp his mark on games, and if he does he may yet revive his career in London.