There is certain sadness about Abou Diaby and it’s not strictly felt only by Arsenal fans. Once considered the next Patrick Vieira, the lanky Frenchman never lived up to the expectations. The sadness stems from the fact he possessed the talent to become one but could never stay fit for long enough. It’s a story of Greek tragedy, really. His career was marred with so many injuries to all parts of the body he made football look like a part-time job.
But there’s more. Here are several reasons he flopped hard at Arsenal:
Branding players ‘the next big X’ is tricky
It’s hard enough for youngsters to make a break for the first team but when someone is compared to one of the all time greats, it’s an entirely different matter.
When Diaby joined Arsenal, he was only 19 years old but his body was that of a battle-hardened warrior. On top he had unseen technical skills for his size. He seemed the big deal. Standing at 6f4, a certain physical power emanated from him that reminded of Patrick Vieira.
Labels stick and carry criticism when players don’t live up to them. Diaby learned that intimately. Whenever he was on the pitch people expected him to dominate the midfield and to change matches with his mere presence. That put enormous pressure on him.
As many as were the similarities between Diaby and Vieira, just as many were the differences. Diaby prefered to shy away from physucal challenges, to dribble more and was more offensive minded than Vieira. He was more suited to a No.10 role than a holding midfield one.
The discrepancies often caused confusion, even with Wenger, who experimented by placing Diaby out of position way too much. This, and the external pressure to be on par with Vieira, stifled Diaby’s progress.
Made of Glass
Comparisons to big players were not the only thing Diaby had to endure. He underwent a barrage of other labels ‘L’HommedeVerre’, ‘Man of Glass’, etc.
“It can be painful, on a psychological level.” Diaby said. “They don’t know how much I give every day of my life to try and recover. But hey, what can I do? This is my life story.”
Diaby sustained over 40 injuries during his Arsenal stay and spent 222 weeks not playing. How he never retired speaks of substantial mental strength.
But the mockery of branding him with such nicknames served as a restriction for him in his development. On top, he often became singled out for nasty tackles by oppositional players.
He received his first serious injury in his ankle which shattered after a hard tackle. The overcompensation he sought to protect the fragile place led to a host of other problems, but non was as influential to his playing as the psychological aspect of it. He said about it, “Over time I had a bit of fear in my play. It can be in you mind, thinking that the next big injury is just round the corner and wondering how far you can push your body.”
The Team Formation
Wenger liked to play Diaby out of position. The French manager applied that to several players and according to him was part of a process of development: getting awareness for the closest to your natural position.
With Thierry Henry, it worked. With Diaby it didn’t. Not only the lanky midfielder had a tight window of playing time due to his injuries but was also used often on the left side where Wenger lacked quality then. Diaby’s lack of speed made him look like a clumsy elephant there. He often kept drifting to the centre and that earned him the label of ‘undisciplined’. And this was not true.
Diaby had a turn for better when Wenger switched to 4-3-3 but by then his injuries were allowing him 5-10 matches a season.
Drawing the Line
Abou Diaby was a man with bags of potential once. Now, near the sunset of his career, a certain melancholy encompasses his career. But Diaby never gave up on his football. His twitter name is fittingly ‘Mohammed Ali’.
A religious Diaby remained positive “I knew there’s always somebody worse off. I have been fortunate. I remember seeing what happened to Fabrice Muamba. I remember seeing the injury suffered by Dean Ashton, a brilliant forward who retired at 26.”
Diaby was frequently on the verge retirement himself but his positivity and spirit always dragged him back up again: “I’ll keep playing for as long as possible, as long as I feel there’s a possibility.”
After Arsenal released Diaby in 2015, he signed with Marseille.