Abou Diaby is a player who has divided opinion ever since his transfer from Auxerre in the January transfer window of ’06. Being a tall, French, black central midfielder he came with the inevitable tag of ‘The Next Vieira’ but it was evident from early on he was unlike our former captain in many ways. As he does with many players fresh to the squad, Arsène Wenger integrated Abou into the starting XI slowly and positioned him on the flank when he did so. Here, he was able to show unexpected trickery and a languid style outside the furiously-paced Premier League engine room. Out wide he could develop somewhat out of the limelight. Mistakes would be less costly there. He would be given more time to adapt.
Things were going quite well for Abou. He scored his first Arsenal goal in a 5-0 rout of Aston Villa and was beginning to make more of a difference in matches. Unfortunately, that promising start would be brought to an abrupt end on May 1st at the Stadium of Light. Dan Smith’s injury-time tackle that day left Abou with a fracture dislocation of his right ankle. He would be out for 9 months.
Sadly for Abou this would be the first of many injuries he’d suffer in his stop-start career to the extent that up till now he’s had to endure another 31 injuries of varying severity. That’s roughly 5 a year. It was even rumoured that after the new Medical Centre at London Colney was built a wing would be named after Diaby seeing as he knew the medical staff so well. The validity of these rumours may be tenuous…
Despite his plethora of injuries it seemed as if the 09/10 season might have been a turning point for our man made of glass. Calf and knee problems around the turn of the year hindered him slightly but for the majority Abou was making his familiar driving runs on a regular basis now positioned in the heart of midfield. His long galloping stride would leave opponents for dead at times so much so that squint and you would’ve been forgiven for thinking we had never sold Paddy to i Bianconeri all those years ago. He managed 35 starts and 5 substitute appearances that season, scoring 7 goals in the process.
As is his luck, however, those numbers have not been replicated. I write this after seeing Abou, after yet another return, limp off the pitch at the Britannia Stadium as the final whistle blew. It has since emerged that he suffered a calf strain which will rule him out of the remaining two games of the season and the European Championships this summer (if he was in contention at all). His season has amounted to a grand total of only 117 minutes spread over 5 substitute appearances in all competitions. There’s no getting around the matter. That is a woeful total. So much so that the question must be asked: Is it time we moved our separate ways?
While all fans lament his luck with injuries and some have bones to pick regarding his occasionally lackadaisical style of play which hinders our tempo at times, Diaby is a player who is held in high regard amongst his peers. Laurent Blanc, manager of the French National Team, has stated that he’s “an incredible player” and that if fit he would “want to bring him to the Euros.” Sadly it doesn’t look like this will happen. Club teammate Bacary Sagna takes that hyperbole on further with his opinion that “without injuries Diaby would surely be the best French footballer.” High praise indeed but of course we must face reality. The injuries have been there.
Diaby’s assertion earlier this year that he is not fragile certainly would have raised a few eyebrows amongst fans. While this may be the case in his own mind unfortunately the facts paint a story quite to the contrary. He seems to be in a perpetual state of battling back to full fitness. The worry is that there’s no simple fix for his predicament. Theo Walcott suffered a number of shoulder dislocations in his early days at the club yet procedures on both cured the issue. Despite many operations Abou shows little signs of improvement.
“I have had three operations on my ankle, all for different problems but the result of that was that my body is unbalanced, especially in my legs. I have overused one over the other and to put everything back in place is not easy.Today my ankle is twice as big because of the surgery. My problem is a biomechanical problem. I need to work daily on how to rebalance my body.”
A by-product of his multitude of injuries has been fear. He admits that has been the case in the past:
“I have to say that last season I feared a bit to play. It was so important for me to come back to my best level and to avoid getting injured again that I had this little apprehension.”
It would only be natural given his lack of game time that this fear would still be pervading his play. Fear can cripple reflexes and the Premier League can be unforgiving to individuals slow in both thought and in body. Every failed comeback would be a mental blow as much as a physical one making each subsequent return that little bit more difficult than the last. It’s a potentially infinite cycle.
Arsenal supporters are certainly no strangers to injury-prone players. In fact, it has unfortunately become tradition for a member of the first team squad to be absent for the majority or whole duration of the season in recent years. Diaby and those in favour of keeping him at the club would likely argue that the likes of Tomáš Rosický and our prolific captain Robin van Persie were in a similar position to him in the past. I accept that they have suffered from recurrent muscular injuries during their time at the club and *touchwood* have put those issues behind them but I’d argue that neither have had the same extent of surgery as Diaby. His case is far more extreme.
As long as he possesses this ‘injury-prone’ tag Abou will not be an attractive prospect to any potential buyer. His talents are clear but, and I’m stating the obvious here, they are useless to a club if he is forever on the treatment table. In previous years this may not have been such a problem. Before the 25-man squad rule was implemented in the Premier League clubs could hoard as many players as they saw fit. Now, however, there is pressure on efficiency of squad numbers. Diaby takes up both an over 21 and non-homegrown spot in the squad which could easily be filled by a player who, and I realise this sounds harsh, could actually contribute to the team’s performance on the pitch. Arsenal Football Club’s main interest, as stated in the name, is football not medical care.
So, what are our options?
Sell him. However, as I’ve mentioned previously due to his situation there would be few prospective takers.
Mutual termination of contract. Diaby still has 3 years left on a reported £60,000 per week deal. It’s highly unlikely that this option would materialise.
Persevere. Continue as we are with the hope that eventually his days on the sidelines will end.
Loan. A compromise of sorts. Any prospective loan would likely involve Arsenal subsidising a certain proportion of his wages but would also make him a slightly more attractive prospect to interested clubs. There’s no guarantee that a loan spell would result in an upturn in fortune but it would act as an intermediary option that may suit all parties.
Regardless of the option Arsène decides on this summer I think we can all agree that Diaby deserves a huge change in luck. Whether he gets that is another matter but he seems more determined than ever to make sure he fulfils his undoubted potential. I leave you with a few words from the man himself:
“I have never been as motivated as I am now. I want to prove to everybody, and especially to myself, that I can do it. I have faith in what I am doing. I will never give up and I know that I will come out of this tunnel.”
I certainly hope you do, Abou.
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