Abou Diaby looks like the perfect footballer; tall, agile, with a quick turn of pace and a smooth pass. But he has a problem; his body. In his six years at Arsenal, Diaby has suffered 31 injuries, roughly 5 ayear, but is adamant he’s not injury prone and rather, his problem is biomechanical. “I need to work daily on how to rebalance my body,” he said last season as he attempted to make his latest comeback. He broke down again not soon after.
On Sunday, though, Abou Diaby completed his first ninety-minutes in over 12 months (although his absence didn’t go entirely unnoticed. Wayne Rooney tweeted not soon after to ask why Diaby “doesn’t play more games”) and he produced a man-of-the-match performance to give a timely reminder of his talents. Diaby was superb, taking the ball off the defence and instigating attacking moves while he also did his bit defensively by stopping Liverpool creating chances. By twenty-minutes, his confidence was at full flow and produced a piece of skill that must be rewatched over and over. Picking up the ball in the centre of midfield, he swivelled away from the challenge of Joe Allen before producing an outlandish drag to fool Luis Suarez. Diaby’s next move was to pass it to Lukas Podolski in space.
Diaby’s role in the 2-0 win was the one everyone envisaged when he signed – the true heir to Patrick Vieira – but one many doubted he had the appetite for, not to mention the body. As such, Diaby was often pigeonholed as that power option that Arsenal could use in face of the wanton destruction they often encounter in the Premier League but always seemed ill-equipped for. It didn’t help that Diaby had an annoying penchant for holding onto the ball for too long. Indeed, that might be excusable because last season he stated that he played with a bit of fear and such, overcompensated by trying to fend off tackles with his strength. The quick, short passing that he promised when he signed, became less. Against Liverpool, though, that was one of the hallmarks of his fine display.
The return of Diaby will please Arsene Wenger although he’s quick not to reach for the celebratory glass of Israel’s finest. Nevertheless, it’s hard not to overlook how much Wenger has gambled on Diaby being fit for this season because he’s made him a crucial part of the system.
Selling Alex Song means the midfield has been altered, giving Mikel Arteta the holding role. The Spaniard gives Arsenal a technical base to play around while Diaby is now the in-between midfielder. It seems a strange balance at first, because typically, the physical midfielder for Arsenal has always been the deepest but together, they have formed a formidable duo, acting as the platform for the team to defend as a 4-4-1-1 (and allowing Santi Cazorla to roam as the second-striker) and then using their multi-faceted skillset to initiate forward moves. “I am not like Alex Song,” says Diaby. “We have many players who can take his place like Francis Coquelin or Mikel Arteta, who likes to play deep. I want to get forward – that’s me. I have defensive duties as well so I need to have a good shape defensively and, as soon as we get the ball, go forward.”
Diaby seems inherently suited to this role and it’s the reason why Wenger has waited so long for his return; he too feels Diaby is perfect in that position. Indeed, it must be noted that Wenger has long been on the lookout for someone to make that second-function midfield his own. After Gilberto, Flamini, Denilson, Diaby and Wilshere have all been test in that position while Melo and M’Vila had been heavily linked. Arteta was brilliant at it last season but Wenger might have finally found the perfect balance. Even if it’s meant he’s had to go full circle again, this time hopefully with a fully working model. Abou Diaby 2.0 if you will. “He is capable of a very quick transitions from defence to attack,” said Wenger. “And has fantastic strength box to box, nobody can go with him.” That was certainly the case against Liverpool.