News of Abou Diaby being ruled out for up to nine months was gut-wrenching if not entirely shocking. There was a depressing inevitability that the next setback for Arsenal’s French midfielder was waiting round the corner, ready to pounce when we were most vulnerable.
A cruciate ligament tear is merely the latest in a line as long as Joey Barton’s criminal record of injuries that have hampered Diaby’s seven-and-a-bit years at the club. The fact he’s made a pitiful 177 appearances in that time is testament to his troubles; he’s suffered the kind of luck tantamount to someone stepping on a crack under a ladder a black cat had just ran past on Friday the 13th.
Of course it’s not just down to misfortune. A lot of his ‘injury hell,’ as the tabloids would probably describe it, stems from an horrific challenge by part-time call-centre worker/part-time footballer/full-time thug Dan Smith at the Stadium of Light in 2006. That challenge fractured Diaby’s leg and ankle, and left him on the sidelines for months. Perhaps ironically, it was one of the shorter lengths of absences he would ultimately have to endure, but the knock-on effects have been severe and may prove to be fatal in terms of his footballing career.
I better quickly state at this point that I am, frankly, the antithesis of a medical expert (as my GCSE biology results will testify); my assumptions are gathered from little more than observations discovered with the help of hindsight and basic logic. But the injury suffered from Smith’s tackle resulted in Diaby having an imbalance between muscles and bones in both legs. Naturally, when recovering from a broken right leg, he’s going to put much more strain on his left, which will inevitably lead to injuries such as the one he suffered yesterday. There have also been reports that one of Diaby’s legs is now in fact noticeably shorter than the other. So, in sophisticated medical lexis, our rangy Frenchman is broke.
To be honest, it’s difficult to see any way back for him now; at Arsenal or otherwise. Not only will it take nine months to recover physically (note that we’re notoriously awful at predicting lengths of absences, and indeed the fact previous incidents suggest he may never fully reach fitness levels of 100%) but there’s a good possibility that the psychological damage will be irreversible. Many players have spoken of the difficulty in remaining motivated during long lay-offs, and it’ll be worse for Diaby, who has listened to this record three or four times already in his desperately disrupted career.
What makes this most heart-breaking is that Diaby has shown glimpses to suggest he could have been a magnificent footballer. Even this season the optimists amongst us retained some hope that he’d be given a clean bill of health from the footballing gods, and allowed a full season to make up for lost time, and, hopefully, fulfil his obvious potential. Diaby was gargantuan at Anfield at the beginning of the season – bringing back all too familiar comparisons with Patrick Vieira, and, perhaps more accurately, Manchester City’s Yaya Toure.
Diaby’s problem has mainly been inconsistency – he hasn’t been given the freedom to string together a run of games and settle into what seems to be an ever-changing side. He has his flaws in that he occasionally tries too hard to impress and ignores simpler, more effective alternatives and, well, he can be a bit brain-dead, particularly in regards to his defensive duties such as tracking runners.
However, I genuinely think some of that would have improved with more game time, and even these criticisms feel harsh when considering the array of positives he brings to the team. If nothing else, he’s unique, and he gives Arsenal another dimension. Nobody else has the ability to dominate games in the way Diaby does, as he ruthlessly yet gracefully drives from box-to-box. Perhaps Jack Wilshere is his only colleague who can similarly grab a game by the scruff of the neck.
We’ve been gifted, or one could make a case for being hindered, with a plethora of small, technical players over the years who like to play the tiki-taka style of football with which we’ve become synonymous. But none of them; Santi Cazorla, Samir Nasri, even Cesc Fabregas, were ‘ball carriers’ – they were far more comfortable distributing the ball than they were dribbling with it. Diaby is a physical presence and far more direct and deliberate in his play, sometimes to the team’s detriment, but when unlocking a tight defence for example, he’s the type of player you want to pin them back and generate more space for his teammates.
Don’t let that fool you into thinking Diaby is some brute, purely in the side to intimidate. Few in the league are better at dropping a shoulder or sharply turning away from their man as the Clairefontaine graduate. His quick feet make a mockery of the cliché that anyone over six-foot-three is clumsy with the ball; you could in fact make a case for Diaby being one of the most skilful players around. At 26, he should be approaching his peak, but the sad truth is that the career of a player with all the talent in the world is most likely coming to an abrupt, premature end.
Whilst his somewhat inevitable plight is tragic, there are two intriguing sub-plots to this story; the first of which surrounds Arsenal and decisions made with regards to personnel. Some would argue that Diaby has always been a liability fitness-wise (through no fault of his own, admittedly) and a waste of £60k a week or whatever figure he’s allegedly sitting on. I personally believe he was worth the gamble. We had a similar situation with Robin van Persie, and, putting his subsequent betrayal to one side, were vindicated as he blossomed into one of the finest footballers on the planet.
Clearly Wenger believes Diaby could have, and may still have a faint chance of, following a similar path, hence his faith. When fit, he is a regular pick for the French national team, with current boss Didier Deschamps hailing him as the “complete midfielder.” This may be the one that doesn’t come off but I don’t blame the manager for retaining hope that he could recover. For me at least, his ability (and seemingly impeccable attitude) was the most important factor, and the reason behind him being given numerous opportunities.
However, for all my Diaby-love, I’m the first to realise what a foolhardy act it has been relying on him as much as we have in recent years. Not since Mathieu Flamini, Lassana Diarra and Gilberto were all sold in the space of six months have Arsenal had any real depth to their midfield, and blindly hoping a clearly very-injury prone Diaby would be the answer to all our prayers was naïve to say the very least. It appears particularly foolish when looking at the sale of Alex Song, and subsequent failure to replace him. Our lack of options has led to the overplaying of Wilshere and we will encounter similar problems until the squad is sufficiently bolstered. If it hasn’t been said a thousand times already, this summer really is massive.
The second of the aforementioned sub-plots is the attitude towards dangerous tackling in this country. Maybe I’m biased or too idealistic but I just don’t think the punishment fits the crime in these instances. I have to use the term ‘crime’ loosely because, as we’re so often reminded, they don’t intentionally go out to hurt their opponents, they haven’t got a bad bone in their bodies and they all love their mummies, blah, blah, blah.
But something needs to be done to stop these all too frequent occurrences. Diaby and Eduardo’s careers were wrecked by horror tackles, some will argue Aaron Ramsey has never been the same since he was on the end of an assault, and the future of Newcastle’s Massadio Haidara, the latest recipient of a shocking challenge, remains very much up in the air.
All those on the receiving end were, or will be, out for the best part of a year, all at crucial stages in their development. Why should they have their careers severely disrupted, if not totally ruined whilst the offenders get off with a three match ban or, in Dan Smith or Callum McManaman’s case, absolutely nothing? I’m not saying the press in this country are xenophobic or anything but you do wonder how different the reaction would be if it was a media darling like Wayne Rooney or Steven Gerrard injured by Jonny Foreigner and not some honest, passionate, hard-working (insert other nauseating cliché) British lad.
I wouldn’t wish horrible injuries like that on my worst enemy but I genuinely fear that’s what it will take for changes to be made. Stricter punishments need to be enforced, or else Diaby will be remembered as just one of a long line of promising careers cut short.
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