You can certainly see where the comparisons come from. There’s always a seed of truth beneath every lazily sprouted bough of clichéd journalism; and calling Abou Diaby the next Patrick Vieira is no different in this regard. Even the casual eye notices many glaring similarities: French and of African descent; possessing the oft-repeated ‘good feet for big men’; tall, loping and assured strides across the green as if they owned it. It’s where their paths divide that is more telling, however. Vieira was midfield enforcer for years on end, while Diaby has been a tragically ephemeral presence on the football pitch. Vieira was purveyor of the crunching tackle and telling interception, harbinger of great vengeance and furious anger; Diaby has been a powder-puff recipient of niggle after pull after tear, hamstrings breaking down faster than a rickety, second-hand Fiat. The former’s career at Arsenal was a master-class provided by a player at the peak of his career; and the latter’s time in London so far has been a vicious circle of patched-up limbs and patchy form.
Diaby has been the subject of much adulation after his towering performance at Anfield in September. And all of it is justified: the lanky Frenchman was linkman-incarnate against Liverpool, snapping at Sahin’s heels to win the ball, galloping past Gerrard with one telling touch, being a willing body both in attack and defense. Whether it was his hip-swivel and fake to make Suarez look silly, or the wonderfully nonchalant heel-flick to Cazorla when surrounded by the opposition; he was everywhere that Sunday, prompting a Twitter-wide volte-face of opinion among Arsenal fans and doubters. But one of those very tweets- by Wayne Rooney, strangely enough- laid the finger bang on the pulse of Diaby’s problem. ‘Diaby is a player don't know why he doesn't play more games’, the tweet said, expectedly devoid of punctuation and unwittingly hitting home. Diaby did not make a single start for Arsenal last season, a measly five appearances from the bench summing up his contribution and cementing a trend.
Ever since a Dan Smith tackle in the dying embers of a game against Sunderland broke his leg back in 2005, Diaby has been hit with a litany of injuries and never really settled into any sort of rhythm. Most of the subsequent irritants have been directly related to the epicenter of that leg-snap; the player has had at least two further operations to right his balance and suffered from a total of 31 different injuries in the last five years. False dawns have come and gone, both obituaries and talks of return have been penned with equal fervor, but neither has truly happened yet. Diaby is stuck on a plateau of frustration, and it’s shaped unerringly like a stretcher.
It is wrong to absolve the player of all blame for his lack of success at Arsenal, of course. Even keeping the injuries aside, there is inherent capriciousness in Diaby’s play; a tendency to dwell on the ball, to take on one player too many and not track back after giving the ball away, and to ironically leave the foot in too hard with his tackles sometimes. Moreover, Arsenal have sold key members of their squad every season for the past few years now; so much so that Diaby is now playing with a completely different midfield and frontline compared to when he was last fit for a sustained period of time. This combination of bodily wounds accrued over the years, faults in playing style, and a constantly changing Arsenal line-up means that an in-form Diaby must be taken with a pinch of salt. Purely because any form shown may well be very fleeting.
Arsenal fans and Wenger will certainly be hoping for better this time, though. The club has ostensibly placed a lot of importance on the twin returns of Diaby and Jack Wilshere, enough to sanction the sale of Alex Song and not find it necessary to sign a replacement. Will it be pressure Diaby’s balsa-wood legs can handle? With a bit of luck and sparing use by the manager, it’s quite possible. If we’re allowed to consign the Vieira comparisons to the book of bromides where they belong, a much more pertinent link can me made; one with Manchester City’s Yaya Toure. The titanic Toure was one of the players of the season last year, helping City to their maiden Premier League title with rhino-like determination. The same similarities have resurfaced between Toure and Diaby: twinkle toes married with brute strength, endless running to link the midfield with the attack, the ability to play anywhere from deep-lying midfielder to second striker. If Arsenal handle Diaby with vigilance and strike a successful deal with hitherto unkind Injury Gods, North London will have its own Toure.
And that will make the Premier League very interesting indeed.
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