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.
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The year was 2002. I was a young and naive Arsenal fan who could never understand all the praise going Patrick Vieira’s way. It never occurred to me why he was named the new permanent Arsenal captain after Adams’s farewell. Surely it ought to have gone to Bergkamp, Dutch master, Arsenal legend and of course senior to Vieira? Or Wenger could have given it to Thierry Henry, then the most exciting player in the world even if FIFA chose to regularly disagree. Surely all Vieira did was to run around, make a few fouls and get red cards at crucial times after winding up/getting wound up by someone.
A year later my opinion had changed completely. I was a year older and therefore wiser, but more importantly I had grown patient enough to watch every player in the game instead of just Henry and Pires. It was then that I began to appreciate what Vieira did for us. Technically he was excellent; he was an unrepentant tackler, his passing was limited but never wasteful and he did often stride forward with purpose using those long legs.
But perhaps his greatest asset was his mental toughness and the attitude of a winner. He was passionate, occasionally vocal, mostly confrontational but best of all, he knew how to win games. He knew how to see a 1-0 lead through to a 1-0 win. Most of all, he was a very ambitious captain. He wanted glory on every stage, the Champions league included and that would eventually be the reason for his departure.
When Patrick Vieira lifted the Premier League trophy aloft on 15 May 2004 as the leader of the “Invincibles”, he was 28 years old. A year later he would leave for Juventus for 14M pounds. Arsenal fans everywhere scrambled to find excuses to justify his transfer— ranging from “he was too injury prone” and “he’s past it” to “He is not a good captain”, “14M is a great transfer fee for a 29-yr old” etc. This particular article amuses me even today.
There’s not much point in debating whether Arsenal miss a person like Vieira. The only question is how much? Hard to answer exactly but I have done some stat work to show Arsenal’s performance this decade with Paddy and after Paddy.
1. Average points in the 1st 19 league games of the season
2. Average in the 2nd 19 (2nd half of the season)
3. Average points (in the last 12 game of a season) earned in the “Business end” (where we have recently done no business) or the “Squeaky Bum time” as Ol’ Whiskeynose likes to call it. In the 1st half of the season, we average almost 4 pts lesser now than when compared to with Vieira. But the story unravels as you move to the 2nd half of the season: we average a whopping 8 pts lesser now than with Vieira.
It gets more damning when you move to the 3rd part of the stat. Arsenal collected an average of 28 pts from 01-02 to 04-05 in the final 12 games of the season/final third/home straight/squeaky bum. Since Vieira’s departure, we average a meager 22. In fact, we have never even touched 28 pts in the final third of the last 6 seasons, leave alone average 28.
The league title would have been ours in 2007-08 if we had managed just 1 more point than our current average of 22. We would be champions already this season if we had managed 28 pts in the last 12 instead of the paltry 17 we are currently likely to get.
Of course, there are several other factors that have led to the dip but the absence of a proven-winner is surely not a co-incidence? I leave you to make your own conclusions from these stats. But if nothing else, atleast it gives us Gooners one more chance to appreciate and celebrate the true champion that was Patrick Vieira.
This post was written by @Eboue_Eboue – be sure to hit that follow button!